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Vita Nuova

Chapter Text

"Through me the way to the suffering city;
Through me the everlasting pain;
Through me the way that runs among the Lost"

Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno.
Canto III, l 1-3

  Carceri

The city of his dreams is as familiar, after all these years, as the city in which he lives and works.

Each night he traces a new route through its stairs, and arcades and steeply rising stony streets, always on the verge of recognition, yet every corner, every courtyard, every gateway reveals a vista he knows he has not seen before.

Sometimes it is a city of the dead; sere yellow grass rattling between the cobbles, the bones of small birds and mammals and fragile snail shells crack beneath his step, and the doorways and windows open onto silent space, void of any life but his.

At other times, it rings with voices, bells, laughter, the song of birds, the sighing of cypresses, and then he glimpses the lives of others…

...an old man rocks in his bed, like a child, his prayers and regrets rising like smoke from a snuffed candle. A woman pauses at a window, pale and solemn, her hand resting on the second life swelling at her waist. Two friends embrace each other on a doorstep and exchange the kiss of peace. A boy holds his hand under cool running water, sluicing away a fine thread of red from a fresh cut. A doorkeeper washes away the traces of the day's labour with lazy damp flicks of a mop...

Robert Lewis passes among these citizens unseen, unheard, his tongue stuck fast within his skull.

He has crossed the city a thousand times in his restless dreams, yet has never reached its limits. He has searched its docks, seen warehouses piled with the trade of a thousand lands, glimpsed the masts of a thousand ships crowding over its rooftops, yet has never found the wharves, or seen the waves he can hear washing their stony sides. He has climbed endless staircases among the towers and domes and spires - but has never reached their summit.

And although the stones around him are warm, and sunlight spills across them like slow honey, he knows that if he looks upward he will see only blackness, and stars that crackle like frost, never thawing, or moving or fading to herald dawn.

And he also knows, that, among all these indifferent strangers and empty sepulchres, the one person he seeks breathes, lives, laughs, somewhere, separate from him, unseen, unheard, but perhaps only a few heartbeats away, on the far side of the next wall, passing in the street below, or on the creaking floorboards overhead. Always faceless, unfound, unknown, but there, waiting, in potential. He can hear their name in the breeze, in the conversations of the market-place, and know that he once knew it well...

...yet, every time he sense that he is close, that the next turn in his path will bring their separated paths back together, he fails, and falls, into the crumpled cotton darkness of his waking life, the alarm on his phone calling him back, hard, aching, alone...

Chapter Text

The phone throbs against the water glass beside the bed, calling “Ser, ser, ser…”. He fumbles it open, eyes still clamped shut, knocking the glass to the floor.

“Lewis.”

There is no reply, and the phone rings on, “Ser, ser, ser”…

...and he is suddenly aware of another arm, another body, soft and warm, reaching over him, from the side of the bed which has been cold and still for 10 years, and a voice, inches from his ear mumbling, “Sorry, Robbie, s’mine… " His heart leaps with sudden expectation - and then he remembers, "Hobson - yes, I'm back. Where? Can you text the address…?”

Robbie flicks on the light.

Laura Hobson is yawning beside him, golden-haired, creased with sleep, on the right side of the bed hogging most of the duvet, “Hmm - give me 20, eh 25 minutes...- Oh no, damn it, I don’t have the car with me; Look, Hugh - you bring the kit, and I’ll just have to get a taxi. Hold the fort, will you? Yeah - yeah - ciao!”

She drops the phone, and a kiss onto Robbie’s eyebrow. “Sorry, il mio amante, the dead of Oxford grow jealous, and clamour for my attention. A suspicious in Fry's Hill. Do you have a mini-cab number to hand?”

“Don’t be daft - “ He sighs, and swings himself off the bed, out of her embrace, “ I’ll drive you.”

She’s already rummaging in her suitcase for clean clothing. “It’s three a.m, and you, lucky bugger, are still on leave. You should get some sleep.“

“Too late, I’d not sleep now.” He knows he won’t, he never sleeps after That Dream. “And there’s no milk, so I wouldn’t even have the solace of a cuppa. Laura -! “

“What?”

“You can’t go to a crime scene dressed in that! Not in the middle of the night! You'll freeze to death!”

“I packed for April in the Tuscan hills, not Oxford. See - three layers. I’ll be fine." But she takes the oversize sweatshirt he throws her. "Are you sure you don't mind?”

“Does Hugh still bring that mighty flask of his on call outs?”

“I should bloody hope so; two pints of strong, hot fresh-ground Columbian, or it’s back to swabbing the mortuary floor for our Hugh.”

“Then I’m sold - go on, get in the car, woman.”

It's only as he pulls away from the curb, that he thinks to wonder who is on call from CID this weekend, whose toes he may be stepping on by arriving unbidden on a potential crime scene.

Chapter Text

“Morning, sir,” the squat outline of DC Hooper comes to attention at the perimeter, as Robbie approaches. “Wasn’t expecting to see you for a day or two yet - thought you were still on leave, sunning yourself in Florida with the good doctor.”

“Florence, Sergeant. And I'm not on duty, just here as the Chauffeur”, Robbie juggles coffee, still hot enough to burn through skin like sulphuric acid, and nods toward the halo of bright lights which envelops Laura, her colleagues and the poor sod whose path has petered out in this scrubby patch of land beside the A40.

“Woooah - She got you under the cosh, pretty smartish. Thought you might be here to hold the hand of the Boy Wonder. This being his first solo shout, and all.”

Robbie turns, and despite himself, the coffee spills and scalds his wrist. Now he knows exactly whose toes he has stamped on.

Hathaway is just a silhouette, standing apart from the little knot of police, forensics, and bystanders, leaning against the bonnet of his car, arms folded, the glow of his cigarette competing against the orange sodium of the Industrial Estate, and a flickering marquee offering 24-Hour Bowling and Pool.

Robbie doesn’t need to see more than this to read the tension in Hathaway’s stillness, as he waits to be beckoned towards his first corpse. He remembers his own - not the case, but the queasy mix of terror, and exhilaration, half-fearful that Morse would appear at his shoulder and tell him the whole thing - his promotion, his new title, the call out - was just an extended practical joke, half desperately hopeful that he would.

“That’s Inspector Hathaway, to you, Constable.”

Hooper draws himself back. “Yes, Sir.”

Robbie wishes now he’d given Laura his keys and resigned himself to a long night watching the endless loop of the news channel until the sky lightened and he had an alibi for his wakefulness.

“Do us a favour, Hoop - don’t let on I’m here.”

Hooper grins. “Right you are, sir.”

He retreats back to the car, sucking on his wrist, blowing on the coffee, and hoping Hathaway, normally so observant, has not somehow sensed his presence here. His “boy wonder”? Was that tiny figure beside him his new bagman, Frankie? Nat? Something laddish. He wishes he’d met her properly, talked to her, warned her, hoped she was tougher than she looked, hoped that nerves wouldn’t make Hathaway mean-mouthed. His height alone must intimate her - hell, it intimidated him, still, from time to time.

From the car, Robbie considers the strangeness of this little patch of land beside the thundering trucks of dual carriageway; used to be a children’s playground, years back. He brought the kids here, with their bikes, acres of safe, sunlit, cracked concrete, a kiosk selling ice cream and pop. He remembers shouting encouragement to Mark, wobbling a little that first afternoon without stabilisers, but so proud, independent at last.

Fifty feet away, Hathaway’s cigarette skitters across the concrete, shedding a last shower of light.

Robbie sinks further in his seat, swelling with pride and loss, as Hathaway unfolds himself and lopes towards the summoning light

The swings have long gone, replaced by “Top-Tots-Fun-Town”, "Drive-Thru Dixieland Fried Chicken", "Sofaworld", "Carpet-City", "Beddy-Buyzzzz", and a 14 Screen Multiplex and Bowling Alley; 24 hour food, fun, shopping, and sex (he knows for a fact that there is at least one brothel operating from the anonymous blocks of the industrial estate, that the car park is still a gay pickup zone) - all the appearance of human life, but none of its meat; no homes, no gardens, no schools - just an expansive fringe of tarmac marked out in rectangles for a few hours free parking and anonymous hand job.

What had Morse called those things - those painted villages the Russians once built, all canvas and plywood and false lights, to make travellers think the wilderness bloomed with prosperity; Potchkins? Potemkins? No, that couldn’t be right - that was some kind of ship wasn’t it? He wonders if "Battleship Potemka" was still offering her very specialised cruise service out there, right now, "Happy Ending guaranteed".

A fake city, flashing its lights in the darkness to convince the passing world that all was well, Happy Ending guaranteed.

Christ, here he is, on the edge of a new life; two weeks of sunshine, good food, good wine, decent music, a beautiful smart woman who inexplicably had no objections to waking beside him every morning, kids grown up, happy, well, Hathaway taking his first case … so why should he feel so lost?

Hathaway.

He’s out of the car before the impulse that drives him surfaces in his conscious thoughts. Something wrong. Something terribly out of place.

He sprints across the tarmac, sees heads turns, towards him, towards the circle of light. Laura - framed in white Tyvek, face pale, eyes dark with concern. James - a clot of shadow, hunched over, on his knees, breathing hard. Retching. Vomiting.

Robbie is first to reach him, first to place a hand on his heaving shoulder. James’s gaze snaps up from the newly stained cement, as if his mentor’s appearance here is the least unsurprising event of the night, his eyes huge and dark in the stark electric light, and says -

“Fuck. Fuck. Not again. Fuck. God. Not again.”

Chapter Text

“No, ma’am - no need to come out. I’ve taken over here. No, entirely DI Hathaway’s decision, to step aside in the circumstance. Of course. I’ll keep you updated.”

Robbie thumbs the phone off. Innocent wasn’t pleased to be woken, even less to hear to Robbie’s terse report. He’s bought the time for James, who is sitting alone, where Robbie left him, in the open doorway of his car, turning cigarette pack and lighter over and over in his long hands, as if even the decision to light up is far beyond him now.

“So what’s up with him, then?” Hooper at his elbow, “Bottled it already?”

“It's an operational issue, so if you’ve any questions you go direct to Innocent. Right. Witnesses. Who found the body?”

“Kid working as cashier at the Dixieland Chicken place, on a fag break. After fags of a different colour if you ask me - you know what this car park is, right? Bum-boy central. Anyhow, whatever it is he is looking for, he’s not looking where he’s going and trips over our friend over there.”

“So take his statement - and make sure you get every inch of footage from all this bloody CCTV. Someone must have seen how a body got here - on his own two feet or someone else's. Now!"

The Tyvek scene-suit rustles and snags as Robbie scrambles up the rough scrubby bank towards the scene - his scene now, for the time being at least.

The body is lying on a rucked up sheet among the leaves and litter in a small dip, curled, almost as if asleep, sweater pulled up, shoes missing, but otherwise fully dressed.

Laura is kneeling at its side, teasing at a scrap of paper clutched in one outstretched hand. She looks up - "Robbie? What's happening - Is James OK? He just folded up and - ”

“He’s fine. Later - just... tell me what we’ve got here.”

“Male, early 40s, still warm - and with a nasty compound fracture, here…” her gloved hand strokes back dark blood-caked curls to reveal the horrible depression at the nape, the skull giving soggily to gentle probing. “almost certainly along lambdoidal suture. Classic blunt force trauma."

"Any idea what caused it?"

She shakes her head - "Could be a blow, something long, a bar, maybe a tool handle - or a fall, I can’t say yet, but - I do know he didn’t die here - he was dragged here, on this....” The torn sheet is incongruously printed with cartoon hippos. A shower curtain, torn from its rings.

"I found these in his back pocket…” She hands Robbie a sealed polythene bag. He has to squint to see the contents - a vending pack of condoms, crushed and crumpled, “Pack of three, one missing.”

“Used? I mean Any sign of … you know…”

“I haven't been that up close and intimate with him, yet!" Then she blushes and looks away. Before they had no shared secrets or shame. Intimacy is driving them apart even as it twines their lives closer together.

"I also found this, clutched in his hand.” A scrap of torn paper, black and white - a photograph perhaps? Robbie. You haven't asked for the time of death?"

"No."

"You always ask."

"And you always stall. He died at some time after 10.30pm."

"Well, I was going to say between 10 and 12 - but...how did - ."

"Because 10.30 is when Hathaway swears Michael John Dunn made his excuses and left his flat after dinner - alive, well and under his own steam."

Chapter Text

James shifts over in the seat to allow Robbie to slide in beside him and close the door. They are alone, as they have sat so many times over the past seven years, shoulder to shoulder, sharing space and time and silence and polystyrene cups of coffee.

“You ok?” Visible now in the interior light is the patch of reddened of skin over James' cheekbone, the eye socket slowly darkening, the split lip. The elastoplast on the palm of his hand. The smear of vomit on his left shoe.

"So - what happened?"

James pulls distractedly at the flesh coloured strip as if irritated to find it there. "Mickey.."

"You fought?"

"I tried to stop him leaving - in the state he was in. He wasn't safe - I just tried to calm him down." He touches his cheek. "He hit me." He glances up - focuses on Robbie's mouth, not his eyes. "Suicide?"

Robbie wonders how either of them could hope to hold anything back from the other. Years in the interview suite, double-teamed, learning every tell, every tick, finishing each others questions, learning to peel back the subject's defences, layer by layer, towards Confession. In the process they have stripped away their own.

"No." James folds forward, all the tension in his shoulders is released.

"Thank god." His hand flies to his mouth as if forestall another evulsion of bile.

"He was struck on the back of the head. And someone moved him here after death. You thought he might be suicidal?"

"He was upset, angry, ashamed..." James passes a hand over his long face. “He was waiting for me, on the doorstep when I got home last night, with a bottle of wine. Said he needed to talk..."

"You weren't expecting him?"

James shakes his head. "Hadn't seen him for years. I bumped into him with his wife in the Covered Market a few weeks ago, distributing cards for his new studio. Here..." He fishes through his wallet, and hands over a square of brightly crumbled board, one of those cheap business cards you get over the internet. Photography - Babies, Schools, Weddings Our Speciality. "He'd been a keen amateur. We said the usual things, swapped numbers, promised to stay in touch, have dinner, celebrate - his marriage, new business, my promotion. Then nothing - until tonight."

"Let's start at the beginning. How long have you known Dunn?"

"Ten years. Easter 2004. When I left the seminary I had £50, a guitar and a scribbled address for a house in Oxford - a sort of drop-in centre for Catholics in Crisis. Micky was there ahead of me, looked after me. We shared rooms for a few months."

"Good friend?"

"I admired him.  I'm just a drop-out. Mickey was the real deal; a Priest who had abandoned everything - career, income, pension, home, friends - to uphold a point of doctrine. It made him seem a little... heroic."

"What was this 'point of doctrine'?"

"Micky objected to women priests and married clergy"

"But I thought..? Hang on - you lot - you don't have any women.  Or married Priests -

"Actually, 'our lot' do. Not women - but ex-Anglican Priests."

"So - no, let's leave that rabbit hole for later. You and Dunn were close."

"Not close - but friendly. I went a bit wild for the first months out of the seminary..."

"I dread to think." If his own observation is anything to go by, James's definition of 'wild' probably includes staying out past midnight, drinking imported larger, and kissing on a first date.

"It was good not to go back to an empty room, to have someone older around, someone who understood what I'd done. I needed that. He liked being needed. I trusted him. Then I joined the police, moved on, we lost touch."

"Until last night? What did he need to talk about that upset him so much? "

“The past.  His, mine. Sins of Commission. Sins of Omission." James leans his head against the cool glass, staring out at the perpetual glow cast on the clouds by the lights of Oxford. His silence is immense, familiar, and unbreakable. Robbie waits. "All I know is that the last time I tried to do this, I fucked up so badly I almost got us both killed. So. This time, we do it properly. I'll tell you everything I can. First, someone needs to tell his wife. Her name’s Debbie. Just - someone gentle. She’s eight months pregnant."

"Christ. I'll go."

"No!" James pulls sharply at the loose elastoplast, and winces. A slow trickle of blood oozes from beneath. "Stay with me. That's the only way I can do this."

"Ok," Robbie says. James raises his head and meets his eyes for the first time. "Ok. I'll stay."

"Then I want to make a formal statement."

Chapter Text

STATEMENT OF WITNESS

(C J Act 1967 s.4 ; M C Act 1980, ss. 53(3)(a) and 55; MC Rules 1981, r. 20)

Statement of: James HATHAWAY
Age of Witness (Date of Birth): Over 18
Occupation of Witness: Police Officer
Address: 57A Virgil Road OXFORD OX2 9BQ

This statement, consisting of ....5 pages signed by me, is true to the best of my knowledge and belief, and I make it knowing that, if it is tendered in evidence, I shall be liable to prosecution if I have wilfully stated in it anything which I know to he false or do not believe to be true.

Dated: 18 April 2014
Signed: J C Hathaway
Signature Witnessed by: DC A HOOPER

{TVP/1/0059}

Last night - Michael Dunn attempted to blackmail me. He just wasn't very good at it.

He had arrived with a bottle of wine - unopened - to celebrate my promotion, he said - but I was certain he had already been drinking. That was out of character - he didn't like alcohol, rarely touched it. He wasn't exactly drunk, but pretty unsteady, emotional.

At first I put it down to nervousness about his impending fatherhood - I knew his wife must be pretty much near her due date. But he kept on asking me about my life, the flat, my work - How rewarding it must be, I - the security, authority, respect... Was I troubled by the things I saw and heard, the darkness I uncovered, the perversity? Secrets could be a terrible burden - said he knew all about that.

All the time he kept drinking. Dutch courage, it turns out.

When I lost patience and asked him outright what he wanted; One thousand pounds. In return, I'd get negatives of photographs he had taken, back when we shared rooms, and the comfort of knowing one secret would be safe from my colleagues. So I'd never have to know what it was like to have everything I valued stripped away.

I called his bluff.

I told him to go ahead - send the pictures to anyone who cared to see them - I even offered names, email addresses. I told him his information was worthless because I had no secrets at work - that my superiors knew what he knew. That I had sex with men.

I lied.

 

Chapter Text

James Hathaway closes his eyes, and delivers up his clothing, piece by piece into ministering, gloved hands.

Watch. Phone. Lighter. Coat. Jacket. Tie. Shoes. Shirt. Vest. Socks. Trousers. Shorts. Each divided, folded, sealed in numbered, indexed polythene.

He opens himself, unflinching, to the swab, the scrape, the camera lens, the trimming of nails, the minute examination of cuts, grazes, blackening eye and the tender bruises to arm and thigh.

Robbie has promised they will take this journey together, that he will not turn away.

The meat of an upturned, outstretched palm gapes as the ragged covering is peeled away. Blood, slow and black in the camera flash, oozes along the lifeline.

That, oddly, seems the most intimate exposure, Robbie feels his skin flush, but cannot look away.

There is a light touch at his elbow. DC De Souza. Frankie. Her head tipped to one side to meet his eye. She'd have got a crick in her neck, following James around. Did someone pair them up knowing how striking a pair they'd make, the etiolated detective, all neck and elbows, this compact dark-eyed woman bobbing in his wake? Crueller jests are played every day.

He sighs. It's time to play the cruellest jest of all, and De Souza will be the joker, delivering it all the way to the doorstep in Blackbird Leys that Mickey Dunn will never cross again.

Chapter Text

When he realised he had no leverage, Dunn collapsed, started weeping. He kept insisting he was good man, he'd never broken a vow, always acted on conscience, resisted temptation, kept faith - and the world reviled him, spat filthy names at him, took his work, his pride. All around him he saw hypocrites, pharisees and sinners thrive, while he lost everything. Pathetic. He disgusted me.

I offered him the money anyway, as a gift. It seemed to be the last straw. He hit me, we struggled, he left.  

I was worried. He was inebriated, unstable, in no fit state to get home, so I followed.  I was afraid he might do himself harm.  It was almost 10.30.  I don't know if anyone saw him leave.  My neighbour, Mrs Staskiewicz may have heard us fighting -  she thumped on the floor above.  

I drove around for a while, to see if I could find him, but didn't see him, or the cycle. He didn't answer his mobile. I had his home number, but I didn't want to alarm his wife. 

About midnight I gave up.  I went home and started to clear up.  That's when I cut my hand - on a broken glass.  The pieces are still in the sink.

Michael Dunn was alive at 10.30, when he left my flat.  I didn't see or hear from him again until 4 am when I identified the body found at Fry's Hill.

Chapter Text

Debbie Dunn is barely eighteen, and neither her pale, solemn composure nor the swelling of her almost-term pregnancy dispel the impression of a child playing with clothes found in her grandmother's attic. That Robbie's own daughter seemed worldlier at twelve does nothing to improve his growing distaste for the recent life-choices of the late Mickey Dunn, now lying, shrouded, on the far side of the glass before them.

Dunn is the natural centre of attention, but it's Debbie he's watching when the attendant peels back the sheet. That's how he's the first to see the waxen stillness in her cheeks, the dip of her head, and why he is first to catch her and ease her gently to the floor.

Outside, in the warm spring sunlight, the girl sips water from a plastic cup and remembers how to breathe.

"Is there anyone we can call, Debbie? Your mum, or a friend?" he asks. She just shakes her head, rocking, folding her grief tight within. "There must be someone we can call?”

"I had Mickey. He was all I needed. I told him, over and over, I told him to wear his helmet. The roads round our place are so dangerous."

"Debbie - we don't think it was a car that hit him.”

"What then?”

"We'll find out, I promise. Did he tell you where he was going last night?"

"Confession."

"Like in a church? Do you know which one?”

She shakes her head. "He moved around, since - It's just easier that way."

"And you weren't worried when he didn't come back?"

"Maundy Thursday - I – I thought he'd stayed to keep vigil.”

It's there, Robbie sees it: the hesitation, the glance sideways, a wife's fears surfacing, only to be reburied before they can undermine the faith she needs to carry on.

"Mickey’s a good man. God rewards the faithful, he always says – and he does. He really does. Look how Mickey's uncle gave us enough to rent the studio, just when we needed it. And Mickey was so excited about the baby - all he ever wanted was to have a family. Now - oh, God... what will I do now!"

Her mouth opens in a zero of loss, the vastness of her despair breaking out of her in an animal howl, buried in Robbie’s shoulder. He held his own children like this in the days of grief, feeling their ribs heave under his hands, unable to take away their pain.

At last she pulls away, wiping her face with her sleeve. "Sorry."

"Here, lass, " he passes over the handkerchief kept in his inner pocket for just such moments. Part of the toolkit. "You cry as just much as you need to."

"You have a family, don't you,” she says.

"Two kids - and a grandson."

"I can tell. My dad won't talk to me - not since the wedding."

"I'll bet he'd want to hug you if he could see you now, pet." She doesn't reply, but a last sob shudders through her.

"I know what you're thinking. About me and Mickey. Everyone thinks the same thing. But I chose him. And he never touched me, not the way people think. Not till the day we were married. He'd kept himself pure for that. He gave up everything, for me." She twists and folds the handkerchief, over and over. "Mr Lewis - your wife, are you still close?"

"Ah, well - my wife died - "

"Oh..."

"But she feels close, to me at least. Like she's in the next room."

"When you had children, though – when...” Her knuckles are white as the damp twisting cotton. “Did thing’s change then. Between you - "

"Did Mickey change? When you got pregnant?"

"Only after, when I got bigger. Fatter. He couldn't touch me anymore. Wouldn’t look at me. Not all swollen up like this."

"Oh, lass..." he says.

"It was wrong. I was all wrong."

"No. Not you." As he rubs her shaking shoulders, Robbie thinks of the condoms, a pack of three from a pub vending machine, one missing. If Dunn wasn't having sex with his pregnant wife, perhaps he was looking elsewhere. He thinks of Dunn lying a few feet away, naked, secrets laid bare under Laura's knife. "Not you. Nothing wrong with you at all.” He thinks of Debbie lying alone in the darkness, last night in hope, tonight in the certainty of loss. “It’s just, well - becoming a dad, it's a scary thing. Not as scary as being a mum must seem - but you realise, you're the one responsible. You made this thing happen, and there's no going back. Sometimes - something in your head gets in the way for a while. Doesn’t mean there's anything wrong with you - or that your husband didn’t love you." He squeezes her hand and a half smile appears, lopsided, on her face.

"Sir," De Souza interrupts from the doorway. "Family liaison's arrived."

Robbie disentangles himself from Debbie and helps her to her feet. "You should go home now, rest as much as you can. We'll need to ask you some questions - not right away, when you're ready. DC De Souza will stay with you, just to get you settled, make sure you've got everything you need." He can see the startled look in De Souza's eyes as she follows them to the car.

Debbie turns back once, the damp handkerchief in her outstretched hand. "Keep it, lass," he says. "You can give it back next time."

She grips his hand, and says, "Mickey was fine until he got mixed up with that friend of his."

"This friend have a name?”

"Jamie. Someone he knew from way back when he first came to Oxford. After they met up it was ‘Jamie this’ and ‘Jamie that’, and Mickey lost interest in everything else, wouldn't talk to me, wouldn’t sleep in the same room, started staying out all hours."

"You don’t know his second name?"

She shakes her head. "He said he was a policeman. Do you know him?"

“It’s possible.”

“Find him. Find out how Mickey died, for the baby. Promise."

"I do my best, Debbie," He closes the car door. Debbie shrinks back into lonely silence on the far side.

De Souza is at his elbow again. “Sir?”

"What did you find on Dunn?"

"Not much – he was a part-time teacher at the Tech, resigned after rumours about him and one of the pupils there. Her family made a complaint, but there are no charges on file. Uniform got called out to the address a couple of times last year, windows put in, some graffiti."

"Stay close to her – and be kind. She needs a friend."

"Sir," She's winding herself up to confront him. "Family Liaison are the babysitters. There's real work I should be doing.”

"Which is exactly what you will be doing spending time with Debbie Dunn. Frankie - I'm not sending you to hold her hand because you're a woman, I'm sending you because I was told you were a bloody good detective, and I need to know what Dunn was up to and who might have had a reason to take a crowbar to his skull. Find out about the uncle who gave them money at Christmas, and what the hell was in those photographs."

 

Chapter Text

Alone for the first time since he'd flung his coffee aside in the Fry's Hill car park, Robbie lingers for a moment in the unexpected morning sunshine. It's at moments like this that he envies the smokers the ready-made punctuation to their day, 20 packaged and timed opportunities to stand apart and think.

There's a chill in the air, just enough to remind the paramedics moving to and fro in the loading zone how high North Oxford sits above the Thames, how cold its springs can be.

Less than a mile from here, and more than thirty years ago, a ludicrously young copper and his far wiser wife had huddled together through winter and spring in their first home, clinging to each other under the sheets, astonished by the transformations worked in her the child they had made, her body unfurling, darkening, opening, swelling.

He could not speak the words to tell her of his love so he showed her, with his fingers, mouth, arms, breath, thighs, marvelling at the new heat in her skin, within and without, scalding as he entered her.

One morning, stationed right here, in the old Hospital beat office, he had suddenly recalled the intoxicating scent of her hair, at the junction of neck, arm, and thigh, and been overcome with desire and fear. He had the mile home, still in uniform, red-faced, and sweating to embrace her, in an ecstasy of fumbling and laughter and shed buttons.

Later as three of them lay in the same bed and he watched Val direct a fat brown digit of nipple into the perfect pink O of their daughter's mouth he knew, with a stab of glorious pain, that he could never love or desire her more than he did at that moment. And swore he would never love her less.

He doesn't weep. That spring ran dry a long time ago. Besides, he has no handkerchief.

Chapter Text

By the time he feels ready to return to the mortuary Laura is done, and hosing down the empty slab. "You missed the show," she says; she has already unpacked Dunn like a magician's cabinet, weighed and recorded his secrets and secretions, reassembled his component parts and put him quietly away backstage.

He once asked, not long after they first met, how she coped with days spent elbow deep in the dead. "Corpses don't hurt people", she'd replied, hands fully engaged with the sodden abdomen of a suicide fished out of the Isis. "It's the living you have to watch out for, I'm told. And that's why we employ nice boys like you and Morse."

"I thought I might have been stood up," she says now, stripping off her gloves. "Hathaway still goofing off, then?"

He drops a kiss on her proffered cheek. He knows that Laura is covering her concern. She's always been strikingly protective of James, but he has no inclination to share the details of his statement with her, not here. Instead he sorts through the litter of evidence bags crated up on the counter. " ’fraid so - he's left me to work out exactly what Mr Dunn was up to last night. This all the forensics from the scene?" Loose change, condom pack, receipts, the scrap of crumpled paper found clutched in Dunn's hand - definitely the corner of a photograph, glossy black and white. He squints through the polythene, but can make nothing of it, and drops it back for future study. "So, tell me - when, where, how, and who?"

Laura pitches the balled up gloves into the waste with dead-eye accuracy. "The 'when' you know. Between 10 and midnight."

"You can't be more precise?"

She sighs. "How many times do we have to have this conversation before you understand my limitations? That's as precise an answer as you are going to get." The apron follows the gloves into the bin. "But I might be able to help you with the where, at least until the lab rats come back with something more conclusive from the clothing. I found traces of a pink fluid driven into the wound by the force of the blow. Liquid soap. Like this..."

She pulls a generous slug from the dispenser and starts to wash her hands.

"So - a washroom?"

"Well yes - but in conjunction with the shower curtain, I'd say a bathroom was more likely, wouldn't you?" She dries her hands and reaches for hand cream. For all her insouciance in the face of death and decay, Robbie knows Laura's hands are scrubbed red raw in the aftermath of murder. "As to how - flip a coin. The broken skull killed him, but Mr Dunn's last supper didn't help. Stomach contents: chickpeas, garlic, wholemeal bread, white wine, lots and lots of wine, black coffee - and a whacking great dose of Zolpidem."

"Zolpidem? You mean the date-rape drug?"

"I mean the entirely respectable prescription sedative which, yes, unfortunately is sometimes used by the sort of creep who likes their victim helpless and suggestible. And before you ask, it has been used in the past to drug and assault men. By rapists of both genders."

"Was there any sign of -" he blushes, tongue-tied. Thirty five years a copper - three of those in Vice - and he still stumbles, "you know, 'funny stuff'?"

"Sex, Robbie. You can say the word in front of me. I'm a grown up, I won't scream or call for the headmistress. But no, there's no sign of 'funny stuff', consensual or otherwise. Just enough hypnotic and alcohol in his bloodstream to have induced fatal respiratory arrest if the blow hadn’t finished him first."

"It could have been an overdose."

"Ah, I thought of that! Here - I filtered the stomach contents."

Robbie steels himself, but sees only a tiny pinch of dark brown grains in the glass dish. "What exactly am I looking at?"

"Di-calcium phosphate. It's a bulk filler, designed to slow down passage of drugs through the stomach. And this is what you find when someone's food or drink has been spiked with a handful of tablets and they don't live long enough to tell the tale."

Robbie thinks back to the crumbled cardboard box in its polythene nest. "Dunn was carrying condoms. Which suggests someone looking for - you know -”

"Sex."

"Sex, and with someone other than his pregnant wife. But, in that case, why would someone need to drug him?"

"Maybe he wasn't up for whatever it was the creep wanted. Wrong gender, wrong type? Or maybe he - or she - gets off on the sense of control, having a sex-puppet to play with. It might be consensual - the offer of a little something extra for relaxation. Am I helping? I'm trying to do the detective-y bit here, seeing as you've lost your usual partner-in-crime."

"Pretty good - have you ever thought about a career in Police Work?"

"And try to live on the pittance you lot get paid? Not on your life! Now stop cluttering up my mortuary, and get on with finding your answers. And don't forget to give my regards to the lanky one."

Chapter Text

It's disconcerting to face Jean Innocent alone. As she waves him to the right hand chair Robbie realises he always takes that side, James takes the left, and now he is shipwrecked there.

At least Innocent looks as awkward as he feels. She's still dressed for the weekend his telephone call brought to an abrupt end eight hours ago, sandals and jeans rather than suit and earrings, "South Coast Surfari 2011" scrawled in sun-faded lettering across her chest. Mr Innocent, he recalls, is a keen, if accident-prone, surfer.

Something of her holiday informality lingers... She perches on the desk, and leans in.to say, "Thank you for handling this so well - I know it's never easy when loyalties are divided.”

"My loyalties are where they have always been, Ma'am."

She straightens her voice still conciliatory. “Thank God you were on hand to take control so promptly this morning." The phone on the polished surface beside her throbs with incoming messages. Robbie can see her fingers twitch with the effort of ignoring each skittering movement, each strident bleat for attention. "Bring me up to speed."

He knows that she has read the notes he handed to Janice an hour ago. A PA's overtime rate is twice his, and Janice's presence on a Bank Holiday morning has set an alert trilling deep in his gut. He doesn't want today to be exceptional. He doesn't want to see evidence of the alarm the events of the morning have triggered. He needs this to be an ordinary day, a simple case, an executive summary of CCTV footage pulled, neighbours canvassed, suspects compiled, and arrests made.

But he has to admit that he has halfway into to the Gold Twenty Four Hours of the investigation, and he has no arrests, no suspects, not even a primary crime scene. Just a DI three floor below wearing a track in the carpeting of the interview suite.

"Tell me about the blackmail angle?" she asks, "Can we turn up other victims, someone with more to lose and less self-control?"

"Hathaway says he didn't know Dunn well enough to know who else might have been his targets. We need the photographs - uniform are securing the lock-up Dunn rented as a studio, SOCO will check it over as soon as they finished with Hathaway's flat." Robbie thinks of the pale child weeping into his shoulder in the hospital car park, and knows he could have pushed her harder. "And I've put De Souza in the house with the widow, told her to keep her eyes and ears open."

"What about the sex angle? The victim was found close to a known cruising zone; we've been fielding complaints from the Fry's Hill developers for months now. Looking for sex - or men to blackmail?"

"I'll put some mobile units out there tonight, with head-shots, see if Dunn's been spotted there before."

"I'll brief the LGBT team first - we need absolutely transparency, and full public confidence. No, I can't fault the choices you've made." She picks up James's statement, "Nor Hathaway's. Absolute transparency - that's the only way to proceed." She taps the page. "Smart of you, getting Hooper to witness this, avoids any hint of collusion." She lets the paper drop to the desk. "Pity Hathaway didn't speak up last month, when we were recruiting for the Diversity and Community Committee."

Robbie can't think of anything more likely to have driven James to add another lock to his closet door. "Not really his cup of tea, is it Ma'am? Committees and acronyms and that."

"If you say so. You'd probably know more about his drinking habits than anyone." She fixes him with an unblinking eye. "I am assuming you also knew he was gay?"

He meets her gaze steadily, "DI Hathaway has never lied to me about that aspect of his life.”

If she recognises the evasion, she lets it slide past her with no more than a raised eyebrow. "And you don't have a problem with it - ?"

"Of course not. Ma'am."

"Good for you! And now of course, we're ludicrously shorthanded - haven't even replaced Petersen, just don't have the funding. Jeffries is on a team building exercise in the Brecon Beacons and not answering his phone. Chaudry's on sick leave again - hernia; Hathaway was my cover for the entire weekend, until you came back on Tuesday..."

"I'm back now."

"Which is wonderful," she says, "but you have to back right off this case. You are too close."

"Ma'am...?"

"I called in a favour - Greater Manchester are lending us Detective Superintendent Maitland... She should be here by," she checks her watch, "three at the latest."

The name stops Robbie dead. "Siobhan Maitland?"

"You know her?"

"Aye, she was on secondment with us, back in the 90s. On a serial sex case. I thought, well - violence against women was her thing back then."

"Vulnerable Victims and Hate Crimes. I've heard her speak, she's impressive."

"She's sharp, I'll say that." - And she's willing to cut corners to get a result, he wants to add.

"Maitland has asked that we stand down now, lock down all the physical evidence and scenes until she's had a chance to review them for herself."

"And witnesses?"

"I'm sorry?"

"Does she expect me to keep DI Hathaway locked down for her as well?"

"Don't be ridiculous! Look, Robbie, James did the right thing, he trusts the process, he’s put everything out into the open, into our hands…"

"Into my hands, Ma'am."

"And now I trust you to hand it over. Oh, for God's sake Robbie, do you have any idea how high the stakes are right now?" she snatches up the buzzing phone "We're trending on bloody twitter right now - #hatecrime #homophobia #queer-bashing! Your blackmailer got knocked on the head at the wrong time and in exactly the wrong place!"

"I know precisely what the stakes are, Ma’am. A man is dead. His wife is in pieces. His bairn will grow up without a dad. And right now one of your best officers - a man who considers you a friend - is sitting in the basement in paper overalls instead of doing his job and finding the killer." The phone in Innocent's hand buzzes again. "You should just switch that bloody thing off, and start talking to people, instead of fretting over "Trends: and "Twits" and "Hash-tags" or whatever they are."

"Enough!" He hears the steel in her voice, the warning to back down. Jean Innocent didn't climb the stairs to this office by charm alone. There was blood on the handrail every step of the way. Her predecessor, Strange, never scared him. Innocent does.

“- Ma'am."

"Oh, dammit. It's James I'm looking out for here. We can't afford the slightest shadow of doubt in the chain of evidence and risk some smart-alec barrister muddying his evidence and his reputation. This has to be squeaky clean." Her head snaps up, as does her voice. ”Janice! I said no interruptions!"

"Sorry," Janice, undaunted, says from the doorway "but you need to take this call. I've got the Mail on the line."

"For pity's sake; tell Ben I'll call him back after lunch."

"Not the Oxford Mail. The Daily Mail. Crime Features. They are running a piece about an upswing in hate crime in the wake of same sex-marriage."

"Oh, buggering hell." The colour has faded from her cheeks. "Stall them. Five minutes." The door swings shut. She turns back. "Robbie, do the right thing. Take Hathaway home. Look after him. And let Maitland do her job and find the killer for us."

Chapter Text

The laughter gusting through the interview suite rattles to a close as Robbie pushes open the swing door. Banter, Hooper would call it, the mutual needling which has been part of this job since the days of fog, hansom cabs and helmets. But there is an edge to sound this afternoon, an undercurrent of unease and constraint in the ragged silence. At its centre James smiles mildly, as he always does, but the smile is plastered as tightly to his face as his knuckles are clenched behind his back. Today he has freely handed his amiable tormentors the power to wound, and they know it, the potential for harm crackling in the confined space.

He catches Robbie's eye, and shrugs, "The things I have to do to bunk off for the weekend!", he says, and tugs at the hem of the rugby shirt that manages to be simultaneous far too wide and 4 inches too short.

It’s an improvement on the scene suit, but not by much. It looks as if he has been kitted out from the lockers of the half dozen colleagues who can match his height; boat-sized trainers from which his ankles rise like naked oarsmen, sweatpants already sagging from his bony hips, leaving an undefended tender, pale flesh.

"Well, it seems to be working," he replies "we're out of here. Innocent's orders.”

It's a long walk down to the car, past open doorways, and open curiosity. James doesn't even pause to push the passenger seat, still adjusted for Laura as it was for the drive to Heathrow ten days ago. He simply folds his limbs around his body, like a spider protecting its belly as it falls.

Robbie bites his lip, and turns the key. "Let’s get you home."

"I'm pretty sure SOCO is still busily taking my home apart. Something else for Mrs Staskiewicz to complain about."

"I meant my place."

"No."

"Don't be daft - I'm on call, but you can shower, catch a few hours’ kip on the sofa, there's grub in the freezer, beer in the fridge... ”

"I said. No."

"Ok. So where - ?"

"157 Isis Way. Off the Abingdon Road.”

The drive is longer than it should be. The first Bank Holiday of the year has drawn the day-trippers, a brightly chaotic mass, spilling over kerbs, eyes anywhere but the road, necks craned upward to spires and downward to phone screens. The English are always easiest to spot among the crowds. First hint of sun and they strip to shorts and sandals and spaghetti straps and acres of winter-white flesh.

As the car inches towards Folly Bridge, Robbie tries to gauge the quality of his passenger's silence. He is biting his thumb, teeth worrying the scraps of flesh around the nail, his smoker's tell-tale. After all these years he still find’s James's face hard to ignore. It’s not what Robbie understands as "handsome", too raw, too unfinished. It gives so much away and yet so little. But his eyes always refuse to slide away from it.

"If we knew what we were looking for - the photographs, I mean. - the ones you said Dunn had...of you -" Robbie feels his voice trail away and his face burn as if it were his own privacy he was stripping away.

James pulls at the shirt, which has ridden up once more, exposing the violet dip of navel, and a wandering trail of pale hair, and stares fixedly at the crowds surging ahead of them. "Don't get over excited. I wouldn't want them pinned on the station notice board, but they're just arty rubbish, something Mickey wanted to try. I had a guitar, Micky had a camera, and we both had too much time on our hands. Shit," he looks down at his hand; he's torn the thumb nail to the quick. "I posted some of them to a dating site once, as an experiment."

"Did it work?"

"Look. Why don't we talk about you and Laura, instead? Hmm? Just how is she in the sack? Always imagined she'd be a screamer - ."

"Jesus! -" Rubber squeals on tarmac as Robbie brakes. "James!"

"It's. Is. Private. Ok?"

"Ok. I get it. Just don't do that while I'm driving!" He mouths an apology to the cyclist he almost shunted into the gutter, and gets the finger in return.

In seven years Robbie has never seen James unbutton. He is always armoured in uncreased wool cotton and silk, the merest inch of skin emerging from collar and cuff. Off duty he wears his hood up and his sleeves down, on the warmest day, or the longest night, his angular physicality blurred by layer upon layer of time-softened jersey.

He drives the rest of the way in silence, paying meticulous attention to the road.

157 Isis Way turns out to be a smoke stained Victorian red brick house, set well back from the road by a curved pot-holed drive, screened by laurels, and stinking of long institutional decay. The brass name plate has been polished away to illegibility but the great bell pull beside it triggers a memory, “I know this place,” he says. "Used to be a refuge for troubled girls."

James cracks the passenger door, "And now it's a refuge for runaway priests."

"This is where you met Dunn?"

James nods and starts to unfold. Robbie reaches across to take his arm, to stay him. "James. You have to know - what's happened. What you said this morning. It doesn't change a thing."

"You're wrong," He gently disengages Robbie's hand. “It changes everything." He climbs out of the car, staring at the blank windows above, as if on the verge of a step from which there could be no return. "You'd better come in with me, sir. There's someone you should meet."

Chapter Text

Father Meredith Waite is as sick a man as any Robbie has encountered in his life to date. The founder of St Anthony's is dozing in a stifling over-heated and under lit room on the second floor, sunken into a waxy bundle of bone and cobweb in the corner of a blanket draped armchair. Some traces of a much more imposing figure remain, sketched in the broad shoulders, the large hand that reaches out on introduction, and in the ropes of yellow skin hanging from arms from which muscle has melted like the tallow of a candle. Everything else is so colourless and faded that one might almost see through the man to the tartan weave that cocoons him.

The house Waite founded is decaying almost faster than he has.

The door was answered by a young African in a Qui Gong t-shirt, who introduced himself as "Father Adejole - at least, I'm still a Father for the time being, but you can call me Ade!"

The hall beyond him was barely lit by the coloured glass above the door, and its far end disappeared into an impenetrable gloom. Robbie retains an impression of scuffed cream paint and brown linoleum and an institutional perfume of cheap soap, fried fish and wax.

"Mind your step, gentlemen," sings Adejole as Robbie barks his shins on a cardboard box piled with dusty children's toys and video tapes. He squints at the label: 'St Faith's Summer Fete - 23 June 2012'. He can hear male voices, the grumble of a conversation, a clatter of dishes somewhere at the back of the house that suggests a kitchen. Adejole has a dishcloth thrown over one shoulder, a fleck of soap stands out on his forearm.

"No lights in here." their guide sings out as he leads them up a broad flight of stairs, "the washing machine exploded last night. Very spectacular - blew all the fuses in the building". On the half landing a glazed blue and yellow plaster Virgin presides over more jumble, and walls papered with yellowing blue-tacked flyers; Citizens Advice Bureau, Isis Health Centre, Oxford City Council, Job Seekers Plus.

"Father Waite is in his room along here," the corridor recedes into darkness on both ends, "I'll just check he's awake - He's not been at all well, but he does love a bit of company when he's up to it - what did you say your names were again?"

James pulls Robbie aside on the threshold, "I'd better speak to him first." His face is pale in the half-light, waxy and green.

"Don't be daft. You're on administrative leave. Innocent will have my guts if she finds out you're interviewing a potential witness instead of home watching Jeremy Kyle."

"He's old and he's sick, and this will hit him hard. At least let me break the news - then he's all yours, I promise. "

Father Adejole ducks back through the door, and ushers them in.

The atmosphere strikes Robbie like a physical blow, a thick fug, fuelled by an old fashioned gas fire and ripe with unburnt gas, stale coffee and the stench of approaching death.

The old man's greeting is a deep rumble of disbelief and affection, which sets his raised arms trembling - "James! You came... who is this with you? Inspector Lewis? I am pleased to meet you at last. Adejole - go see if Mr Patterson has arrived with our new fuses. So, gentlemen is this a social call," his bright eyes flicker from one man to the other and narrow, "or, " his voice hardens, "more in the line of business?"

"Business," Robbie pauses, "Inspector Hathaway has some bad news I'm afraid.”

A flush Robbie identifies as gratitude briefly colours James's cheeks as he crouches close to Waite's chair, and takes the old man's withered hand.

"Father -”

"Tell me"

"Michael Dunn was found dead, early this morning," he says.

"Ach!" Waite's frame shakes as if swallowing something strong and bitter, "his poor, poor wife - he had married, did you know? I am told she is very young? A terrible, terrible thing. How did he die?" James looks across at Robbie, who shakes his head. Be careful.

"We can't be certain yet - but it's possible someone else was involved."

The old Priest crosses himself, and bends his head over his joined hands. "Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei..."

Prayers for the dead mean nothing to Robbie except the sounds of strangers soothing their own discomfort He folds his own hands, and fights his irritation when James joins in, in a language used only to remind ordinary men and women that they don’t measure up.

"Pater, deleo. Ego infirmus sum” 

"No, no. Compar, culpa mea est."**

James gently extricates his hand, from the old man's trembling paw. "Father. Inspector Lewis has to ask you some questions about Michael - he needs to know if he spoke to you or anyone else at the House last night."

"Last night? But I haven't seen Dunn in years."

James looks momentarily both puzzled and relieved. "I thought perhaps, last night...?"

"He was invited, of course - ""

"Wait" Robbie cuts in, sharply, "Dunn was expected here last night." James has enough conscience to blush, at the revelation of his omission.

"We invite all our Alumni to the annual vigil - on Holy Thursday. Not all attend, obviously." Is it Robbie's imagination, or does James flush even darker as if rebuked. "Dunn was not here."

"Are you sure?

"I'm dying, not senile. It was a memorable enough evening, what with the explosion and sudden darkness, and not so large a gathering that I would miss a man's absence."

"What was the reason for this vigil?"

"I suppose you have some idea of the date?"

Robbie is tempted to answer The World Snooker Championship, Sheffield, are you a fan?   "I may be a heathen Father, but even I know it's Easter.”

"And yesterday evening?"

"Maundy Thursday." All leave was been cancelled last year, when the Queen visited Oxford for the Maundy Service. For Robbie, after thirty years of policing the city's pageantry it was just another procession, all velvet and sashes, and picturesque nonsense about silk purses being given to old ladies in new hats. "The commemoration of the Last Supper."

"It’s also the evening that Chrism oil is blessed. The Last Supper was also the First Communion, given by Our Lord to the men who would become His first priests. When He took bread and wine in His hands, and transformed them into His own body and blood, Our Lord began a succession of that continues unbroken to this day." The old man stretches out his own trembling hands to Robbie, palm up. "When I was ordained, many years ago, these were anointed with Chrism, by a Bishop whose hands were in turn anointed by another, and so on in an unbroken line to the hands that broke bread together on that Last and First night."

Robbie James's palms, stretched out to CSE to be swabbed.

"Inspector Lewis, you must try to understand this to understand a man like Dunn, like the others who have taken shelter in this house over the past few years." Like James, you mean. "A Priest is not a mere stand-in for Our Lord at the Altar - a holy stunt man. He is, at that moment, the vessel of Christ Himself, at work in the world. A Priest does not say "This is the Body of Christ" but ""this is my body which will be given up for you". Consider the dangers and doubts and hubris a man risks when he believes he is called to Priesthood - and imagine the wrenching pain when he falls short in his own estimation. He is alone, he falls prey to solitary fear, to despair, to self-hatred, even perhaps to self-murder" There are tears shining on the withered cheeks. "That is why I open my doors, last night as every night - for those who seek forgiveness."

James takes the old man's hand and kisses it, reverently. "Adsum. Audio. Manebo."***

Robbie is to realise, many years later, that until that afternoon in the stuffy little room in North Oxford, he had never really taken that other James seriously. James the Priest who-might-have been. Once or twice might have glimpsed that disquieting stranger - in the line of folded hands and downcast eyes at the end of the long night at his desk, or an expression frozen in the lens of a photographer waiting on the steps of a court room. But he has always shied away from examining that uncomfortable recognition more closely, and filed away that year in the seminary as an youthful aberration, a n awkward phase, like Mark "finding himself" in a Bondi beach-bar, or that time Lynn decided she was to be a ballet dancer and didn't eat chips for a month.

James was just too smart, too talented, too full of sense and good humour to have been taken in by this dreary world of dust and superstition and secret languages.

But his belly clenches at the sight of Waite's claw reaching out, pulling his James back into the past, and the nauseous realisation that his friend still wants to be there. He has to speak now, call James back, order him back, into to the real world, he clears his throat.

And is interrupted by a soft, brisk knocking and the appearance of a pleasant freckled face around the door. "Father? You're awake? Just wanted to let you know the new consumer unit can't be delivered until after the holiday, but I've borrowed the generator from St Faiths -- oh, I'm sorry - didn't realise you had company."

"Conn! The hero of the hour. Come in, come in. Inspector Lewis - this is Conn Patterson, our neighbour and Good Samaritan. I have no idea how this house would stay standing without his assistance. The wiring is older than I am, and in no better shape."

"Well, that's what are neighbours are for! Pleased to meet you, Inspector." Patterson's handshake is as warm and firm and reassuring as his smile, "The wife and I live in the bungalow across the way. I lend a hand where I can. Why, bless me - is that Mr Hathaway? It is, it is - we haven't seen you in - oh, I don't know how long. I did hear you were a policeman now?"

"For my sins.” James rocks back on his heels and stands. Robbie feels a wave of relief.  “How is Mrs Patterson?"

"So, so - , well you know how it is, but she's good in herself. I'll tell her you asked after her. Oh, Father? That reminds me" - Patterson places an old fashioned thermos flask on the table, among the litter and bottles of the sick room. "My Maureen made you some coffee, strong, and black, just the way you like it. Keep you going until I can get some kind of power on again. Now, all I need if a couple of strong backs and arms to lift the Jenny from the back of the van - is Father Adejole about?"

Robbie seizes the opening, "Inspector Hathaway, would you - ?" and is relieved that James nods with the near telepathic agreement of old - although there is that same odd flush of embarrassment and gratitude, high on each cheeks.

"No, no Mr Hathaway, I can't drag you away like this..?"

"Don't you worry," Robbie says, "I'll keep Father Waite company for a bit."

The door closes behind James and Patterson, and Robbie feels himself on surer ground again.

Chapter Text

"Inspector. I can at last offer you some semblance of hospitality. Could I trouble you to pour us both some of the excellent Mrs Patterson's coffee? There should be some clean mugs on the table. I take it black."

As he pours, Robbie quickly notes the labels on the bottles and boxes on the table, names he recalls from Aunt Cissie's last days. Diazepam, Haloperidol, Docusate, Carbamazepine, a roll call for the dying. The silver bottle is morphine. But no Zolpidem.

Waite sniffs the murky brew. "Yes, I have need of all those pills and potions. I am not a brave man, Inspector; I am preparing myself for death, but I fear pain. At times I grow nostalgic for the dark and bitter joy of my youth, and I dose myself with good strong Italian coffee,“ He sips from his mug, and grimaces, "not that Mrs Patterson knows much about good coffee - but it is made with love, and that's almost better.”

Robbie shifts a chair, just a little and sits. From here the dim ivy-shaded light will fall across the old priest's face and not his own, "What's the diagnosis?" he asks.

"Thank you - I can't stand people who pussy-foot around sickness. Diagnosis - Cancer of the Pancreas. Prognosis - death, in weeks rather than months."

"I'm sorry to hear it."

"So much left undone - and yet, I hope to be prepared, at the end. I know what awaits me afterwards. Ah, You are a sceptic, Inspector Lewis. I see it in your face."

"I don't mean to be rude," Robbie sips his own coffee. It's as bad as Waite implied. "I see lot of death in my job. I really wish there was something on the far side; but to me it's all just made-up words to help ourselves feel better in the dark; there's no special power in sacred oils, magic rings or fairy stories."

"A marriage vow is only words. A ring is just a hoop of metal. Yet I see you wore a wedding ring for many, many years - and removed it very recently, with great care and pain, it seems to me. So perhaps there is a power in words and things, if only to remind us of what we value."

Robbie resists the urge to hide his hand from those sharp little eyes. It’s been three months since he stood over the bathroom sink wrestling with soap and gritted teeth. The ring now lies in the dark, in a drawer with Val's scarves and glasses and lipstick and keys, but the ridge of callus and fish-belly soft skin it left behind has barely faded.

"I can't know what it cost you to remove the outward sign of your promise," the old man continues, "but I do know what it is to have suffered loss, to learn that you do not have the strength to live up to the standards you set, or that the plans of divine providence do not match your hopes. I have made it my life's work to minister to those who doubt their vocation, to travel in companionship with them, to listen and not condemn."

"You must hear many secrets in your line of work, Father."

"As you must in yours, Inspector."

"Aye, I do. Secrets that kill."

"And you think I might help you uncover the secrets that killed Michael Dunn."

"Maybe. His secrets - or other peoples. Maybe someone he met here?" Robbie decides to rattle Waite a little "we know Dunn was blackmailing at least one person associated with St Anthony's. Maybe more than one. It would help to know why he was here, and who he was in contact with."

“- and the little weaknesses a blackmailer might identify and exploit?"

"Yes."

"Inspector, really; Dunn may have abandoned his vows, but I have not. I know I cannot reveal what I hear in the Sacrament of Penance..."

The irritation which has been simmering in Robbie since James brought into this darkened rotting place erupts. "Don't try that nonsense about Confession on me. I don't care what promises you made to God or Dunn, or the Tooth Fairy. A man is dead, in horrible circumstances, and I have made a promise to his wife to find out why. Does she deserve your help any less than your troubled Priests?"

"Even so - I am bound by my vows."

"Priest-Penitent Privilege has no standing in English law -”

"And I will shortly face a judgement more terrifying and final than any you can bring me to, Inspector, and far sooner! Oh, do sit down. Your pacing makes me dizzy. I have every intention of helping you - and poor Mrs Dunn - as far as I am able. Luckily for both of us, Dunn's disappointment with Church discipline is a matter of public record. He wrote at length to the Catholic Herald while he was here, the correspondence was published in - oh, when would it be, let me think -November 2003?

"He was a very angry young man when I first met him; He had been raised in the Church of England - his father was a Vicar - and converts, in my experience, are prone to a rigid orthodoxy, and are often profoundly disillusioned when they realise how fallible the rest of us are."

"Why did he convert? Inspector Hathaway said something about women vicars."

"Yes indeed - he was one of number of men and women who converted when our Anglican brethren first ordained women. He believed it was an insuperable heresy; Our Lord came to us a man, chose men as His apostles and first Priests. How then could a woman ever stand at the altar and say "this is my body, this is my blood' and not incite the most disquieting images in the mind the hearer? You roll your eyes, at me, Inspector but these are Dunn's words, not mine, and you need to understand him. He was driven to abandon not only the faith of his childhood, and his preparations to follow his father into to Church - but also to set aside his fiancée, and his hopes of a family life, to follow his calling to serve the Lord. Imagine the strength. Imagine the pain."

"I'd imagine the girl found it pretty painful at well."

"I don't doubt that for a moment."

"So what changed - why did he end up here, ten years later?"

"Dunn was just one of those who sought asylum amongst us then and since. The Church has welcomed them, accommodated them - even those already ordained as Anglican priests. Married Priests. With families."

"Ah... "

"Quite. It can be disconcerting for an ancient Priest like myself to meet new colleagues with wives and a presbytery overflowing with the laughter of children - refreshing even. But for Dunn, it seemed a terrible betrayal. He had not compromised, he had paid the terrible price demanded - and now he saw the Church compromising itself to provide work and homes for his contemporaries, men who had sat on the fence long enough to obtain what he had sacrificed. He did what he had done before when reality did not match his expectation. He quit."

"And ended up here."

"With no career, no income, no savings, no home, no family, - just a burning sense of injustice and self-pity. He brooded in his room, rehearsing his grievance over and over again.

“I hoped - well, when James arrived a few weeks later, he seemed a breath of fresh air. Full of life and humour and music. I hoped that he would be a positive influence. And I do believe he was - Dunn stopped writing to the Herald and took up photography. Eventually he got a bit of work through a local studio, helping out at weddings. He moved out, moved on, started a new life.” The old man pauses, his eyes suddenly dim and wandering. “Forgive me, I grow weary. My desires outrun my strength. I must rest.”

The mug in the old man’s hand slips to one side. Robbie catches it before it can spill, gently disentangling it from the clawed fingers and placing it in the table. He smooths the rug over the bony knees.

"Tell me, Inspector,“ Waite’s eyes glitter, but Robbie must lean in to hear “James. Is he fulfilled? In this other life he has chosen? Is he happy?”

 "I hope so."

Waite sighs, and squeezes his eyes shut. "So do I. He would have gone far in the Church, perhaps all the way to Rome. He would have been an exceptional Priest."

"He is an exceptional policeman. An exceptional man."

Robbie waits. After a few minutes the eyelids start to flutter, as the dreams and memories behind them shift and turn. Robbie tucks the tartan rug over the sleeping man's knees, and goes to find his partner.

Chapter Text

There is no one on the stairs, nor on the ground floor. The house is as empty and silent as a gourd, only the gurgling of distant plumbing to suggest it is not utterly abandoned.

With a hiss the fluorescent tube over Robbie's head flickers into life. Somewhere close by a forgotten radio snaps back into life, and Britney is caught pleading Hit me, baby, one more time...

He follows the sound of the generator, thump, thump, thump, through the empty kitchen, down a short flight of steps to dank utility room and through an open door into sunlight, where he finds Patterson wiping his hands on a rag and looking at the chugging generator with the satisfaction of a job well done.

"That should keep them going for a day or two. At least I can pick up a new consumer board. That old one is lethal. Been here since before the Nuns moved in, I shouldn't wonder." He inspects the cable he has fed through the window into the dank utility room. "Fair enough, as long as they don't try to run that old washing machine. It’s almost as old as the wiring, and twice as dangerous; leaks as fast as it fills. This was a mother and baby home see, masses of laundry the Sisters had back then, garden full of nappies and sheets every day the sun shone. All gone wild now. That's our bungalow over the wall there. " He closes and locks the back door" I used to help the sisters out with the garden, and the heavy lifting, just to be neighbourly, but I've not the strength now. Need to save it for the wife. She's been a bit under the weather. Best get back, before she worries." Patterson starts to pack away his tools.

"You were here last night?"

"For the vigil? No. I don't go in for that sort of stuff. The wife does, but... no, I heard the bang, saw the lights go out, and said Maureen, old girl, you'll have to look after yourself for an hour or two while I sort the old boys out again."

"You must have seen a lot of coming and going over the years. "

"True. Can you pass me that wrench?"

"Did you know a Michael Dunn?"

Patterson shakes his head slowly, "Doesn't ring a bell. Did he stay here?" He pulls the door shut and locks it.

"About the time Inspector Hathaway would have been here."

"Oh, now, see, who could forget Mr Hathaway! Weird looking lad, but lovely, friendly, not like some."

"Dunn shared a flat - "

"Oh him! Mickey." Patterson closes his tool box with a snap. "Bit of a loner, kept to his room. Haven't seen him in years. " Patterson stands, toolbox in hand "He in trouble?"

"He's dead."

"No! So young? I'm sorry to hear it. Now, I have to lock up, if you don't mind.  Can't linger."

"I'll just wait for Inspector Hathaway."

"Oh, he's away with Ade and the others, won't be back in a while" Robbie feels the damp concrete tilt beneath his feet as Patterson continues, "It went clean out of my head, he left a message: Thanks for the lift, and not to worry, he'll be staying here a night or two."

Robbie swears. Patterson looks both shocked and amused.

"Don't you worry, Inspector Lewis. It’s what they do here all the time, take in folk. Spartan mind. Not what I'd chose, if I had a friend to go to. Mind your step." They are almost at the front door.

Robbie fishes out his card, "If you remember anything out the ordinary, about Dunn, or what happened last night - ring me."

"Fair enough, "Patterson pops the card in his pocket, and the tool box in the basket of an old bicycle leaning against the porch. "Look, Father Waite is a good man, but, well - they are all a bit potty around here, if you ask me. It’s not natural is it, living all cooped up like that, too much in their own heads. I couldn't manage without my Maureen and she couldn't manage without me. These others - well, you wonder what they are running from, don't you? Will you pull the door too when you leave. Cheerio, Inspector. " And he wheels the bicycle off down the drive into the spring afternoon.

The sunlight is warm in Robbie's face. His neck prickles as if he is being watched, but when he turns all the windows are blank and dead. He wonders if James is hiding behind one of them.

The phone at his hip buzzes, and even before he reads the number, he recalls his promise to collect Laura, and swears, softly.

Chapter Text

He hears her laughter first, deep and throaty, with a thread of mischief running through it that takes him straight back to smoky saloon bars full of ghosts a decade dead.

Siobhan Maitland has aged well, Robbie decides. Better than he has. Her hair is still dark, shorter than it was, cut to curl behind her ears. The trench coat, hanging open over trousers and a crisp white shirt, looks expensive. She probably turns as many heads in Manchester nick now as she ever did here as a sergeant.

Now she's head to head with Laura, laughing - flirting, he suspects, and Laura's smile is wide and genuine. It widens further as she glimpses him in the doorway, as if he has just walked in as the punch line of a joke.

"A familiar face at last." Maitland's handshake is firm and warm.

Just flirting. Laura would never share her secrets to shame him, not even in the mysterious masonic circle of female friendship. He knows this. He is certain. He is however relieved when she is called away to sign off her autopsy results.

"I was so sorry to hear about Vivian."

"Valerie."

Maitland's mouth twists a little in embarrassment and apology. "God. That was awkward."

"It’s Ok. You hardly knew her."

"I remember her though. I liked her."

"Thank you."

"Anyway, you've saved me a journey; I heard you were at home, I was on my way to visit. Do you have time for a chat - maybe a drink?"

"Another time, I promised Doctor Hobson a lift home."

Maitland lifts an eyebrow, and Robbie blushes like an idiot.

"Running away with my Pathologist straight after spiriting away my chief suspect. Tut tut, Robbie."

Robbie stiffens, "Is DI Hathaway a suspect?"

"Hey, Robbie - calm down, it was a joke. I've hardly had time to read the reports yet. Its just - he was your bagman, I wanted your opinion."

Robbie frowns. "He's a good policeman, and a better detective."

"That's what your Super said - it just seems a bit odd, such a good detective stumbling off the fast track, kicking his heels as your errand boy for seven years. Problems fitting in? God knows, I understand how hard that can be. 'God-Bothering College Bum Boy,' that's what DS Hooper called him."

"Not how I'd put it, but yeah, can't say Hooper's wrong."

"Wouldn't have thought he was your type at all. Or were you just following the patent Morse approach to mentoring and keeping him locked up in the basement?"

"Look, Siobhan. We've known each other too long. I'm not playing this game. You have Hathaway's statement. If you find evidence that contradicts that in any way, I'll be right there with you. Until then - you've got plenty of other leads to eliminate."

"Where would you start?"

"The boy who reported the body."

Maitland smiles "Morse's Law. More often than not the first person to see the victim dead is the last person to see then alive." As I remember it, Morse was wrong about as often as he was right."

"But never for long. And he was right about you, Siobhan - he said you'd go far."

"Now, why do I get the feeling that wasn't his idea of a compliment?"

"So, did you speak to the boy?"

"He has a water-tight alibi - Dixieland Chicken has CCTV covering all the tills. He was dishing out the fries from ten to one-thirty, with a five minute break at 12.10, when he visited the employee washroom. He didn't wash his hands, by the way."

"He's a peeping Tom - maybe he saw more than he is willing to admit to."

"Look, Robbie, this is my case now. And I can't afford to get sentimental just because a man with means and motive happens to be one of us. No one enjoys this - but you now you have to step away now, and let me do my job." She steps back, hands deed in the pockets of her trench as Laura appears, her arms full of files. "Good to meet you, Laura."

"Likewise. Robbie, can you take these staff reports a moment." She starts to pull on her coat. "We should have dinner some time."

"I'd like that. Once all this unpleasantness is over - you, me and Robbie. Congratulations, by the way. You make a lovely couple."

Chapter Text

"She's right you know," Laura says, as they sit waiting for the lights to change, indicator ticking away the seconds.

"About us being a lovely couple?"

"About you staying out of the investigation. You’re far too close."

Amber, green; Robbie eases off the clutch, finds the bite, and swings out into the clots and eddies of holiday traffic. "Did she warn you off sharing information with me?"

"She didn't have to. There are lines, Robbie, and I can’t cross them, even for you. Even for the divine Hathaway."

"What do you think I'd do - help Hathaway dispose of the evidence? Laura, after all these years, you hardly know me at all."

"Don't be stupid." She's hurt, he can tell.  Her silence crackles around the car. A thread of pain pulses in his temple; too little sleep, too little coffee. Or too much.

He glances at the clock. Almost four. Twenty-four hours ago they were sipping a last espresso in Pisa airport, using up the loose change. In silence, then as now, the unspoken thing between them curdles the sunlight.

They took the thing to Italy with them, still unnamed, because Italy meant light and warmth and wine and long lie-ins in fresh linen. And they dragged it home again, still nameless, still bundled tightly, wailing, in the dark. Round and round it goes, like the unclaimed suitcase found on every baggage carousel, unclaimed.

Four. He cracks on the radio to catch the local traffic update, to break the silence.

And immediately wishes he hadn't.

…..The discovery early this morning of a body in wasteland bordering the popular Fry's Hill retail park has prompted questions about the policing of the area among local residents.

"You don't know what to think, do you? I've seen all sorts hanging out in that car park, all hours of the day. Our kids cut through there all the time. We don't feel safe anymore."

Tensions have risen over the Fry's Hill site for several months, with Oxford's gay community accusing site developers Connolly Contraction of involvement in a number of assaults on gay courting couples.

"We warned that this would happen. Connolly's security has been heavy handed in dealing with users of the site, while using homophobic language to scare local residents. It was just a matter of time before the violence got out of hand. Fry's Lane was a well-known and safe meeting spot long before Connolly bought it. We've tried to work with the Police to make it safe for all users, they wouldn't listen, and now a man is dead."

We spoke to David Connolly, owner of Connolly Construction by phone. "This has nothing to do with homophobia. I am not homophobic. We do not discriminate. But we are talking here about a tiny minority of adults engaging in unsavoury activities just a few yards from family restaurants and children's entertainment. This tragic incident simply underlines the concerns of our customers - decent hard-working Oxford residents, gay and straight."

The dead man was named this afternoon as local photographer and married man, Michael Dunn. Police are keen to speak to anyone who was in the Fry's Hill area last night and might have vital evidence, but have refused to speculate on the possibility of a vigilante attack. This morning, independent sources reported that an unnamed individual with connections to Oxford City Police, was helping police with their enquiries, but has since been released pending further investigation

And now, over to Jo, with the weather for the holiday weekend...

Laura snaps the radio off. "How is he?"

"Staying with friends." He should call the address in. "You know. Churchy types."

"Oh well, better than the two of you brooding together."

"I don't brood! Do I brood?"

"Like a northern sky, my love."

"You know, the sun does sometimes take a peek at the world north of Nottingham!"

"You can't fool me, Robert Lewis; I once spent a week in Filey. Needed headlight at midday. In August."

James will call it in, won't he? He doesn't have a phone. St Anthony's must have a phone. There was a payphone in the hall. And the internet. Even monks have the internet these day. That young priest, Adejole, he looked like the sort to have an iPhone in his back pocket. James will call in his contact details. It’s not as he hiding. It's not as if he has anything to hide. Except whatever it is he hasn't told me.

"It's only for tonight... he'll be back home tomorrow. Soon as Maitland's cleared his flat - Damn it!" Robbie thumps the the steering wheel.

"What?"

"Sorry Laura - in all of this, I forgot your case is still back at my place. Want me to turn round?"

"It's only dirty laundry and flip-flops. I can live without that for a day or two. I liked her."

"Siobhan Maitland? I could tell."

"Not like that. Idiot. She's tough, must be to have got where she is in your gang..."

"Hey!"

"She's still passionate about the job."

"Yeah. I've always liked her too..."

"But...? Oh come on, Robbie, spit it out. You're worried. You have been since you saw her."

"Maitland's a good copper. You're right, she's tough, she's smart, she cares - it's just, sometimes she cares too much, and starts to bends the rules to get what she knows is the right result. Here we are - door to door service."

There is yellow and green nodding outside Laura's house, where only bare earth lay when he picked her up two weeks before. Spring manages to surprise him every year, even now, after half a century. Winter seems unending then, suddenly, daffodils.

He kills the engine, turns the key over and over in his hand. Laura waits. She has become something of an expert in patience.

“Laura. You don't really believe James is capable of murder?"

"God yes. Don't you?"

"Of course not! This is James we’re talking about!"

"If someone threatened the people he cares for? Frankly I'd rather face a mother tiger than get in Hathaway's path if you were in danger. Or vice versa, for that matter."

"Don't be daft - that's just the job, we look out for each other. The real killers are out there, not in here."

"I know. I do know. I live with every day, Robbie. Every day, every call in, I half expect it to be someone I know, James, or - you - under the sheet."

"Laura -”

"Sometimes I dream it."

"Hey - I'm not decrepit yet."

"Robbie - will you see a doctor. Please." She staring down at the reports piled in her lap.

"I thought I was seeing one - a kinky one who dreams about me. Naked.  On her slab.”

"It's not a joke. Please. For me. Just to make sure there's nothing physically wrong."

And now it’s out, off the baggage carousel, that extra bit of baggage they’ve been dragging about.  His baggage.

"Laura , not now - it's been a bugger of day."

"It’s always a bugger of a day. Except when we're on holiday, when its lovely and neither of us want to spoil the mood. Robbie, it’s not... I’m not disappointed -”

"Yes," He says "yes, you are, and you should be. I'm sorry."

"Don't. Erectile dysfunction..."

"Laura!"

"Oh grow up Robbie! You aren't nine years old. Use the right words for the right things. Erectile dysfunction is nothing to be ashamed of ; but it can be a symptom of other issues - diabetes, heart disease, kidney failure… "

“My heart is fine. It's just - well, you know, in an old house, sometimes the plumbing and wiring can be a bit underpowered."

"So you call in a plumber or an electrician - oh god, you've got me doing it now! You call in a specialist.  Make an appointment to see your doctor. Please. For my sake."

"Ok. Laura." He sighs and takes her hand. "Love. Whatever it takes. I just want you to know -  it's not you.  It’s never been you."

Laura squeezes her eyes shut, and her fingers tight around his. "I’m almost half hoping it is me - because if it isn't, it’s you, and I really don’t want to find you on my slab any day soon. God, I'm sorry. That was really crappy timing. You’re right; it’s been a bugger of a day." She drops a kiss on his cheek and releases his hands to open the car door. "Go home and get some sleep. All of this will look better in the morning."

He waits until she has closed the door, until light shows behind the kitchen blind. Then he starts the car and drives back into the heart of the city.

Chapter Text

Robbie tosses keys and envelope onto the table, next to the heap of bills and flyers which drifted and spread behind the front door over the two weeks of his absence. The cases still stand against the wall, just where they were dropped last night. Without conscious thought he thumbs on the television. Light and sound to fill his home, the sing-song of an auctioneer flogging family silver.

The envelope just sits there. Mute. The loudest thing in the room.

Has he eaten since the flight? That little pack of pretzels he remembers, a greasy warm panini left half-finished on his tray, over chilled apple juice. He vaguely recalls a ham sandwich abandoned on his desk when Innocent's PA had rung through. It's probably still there.

He opens the fridge. A single sagging tomato winks back at him. An open pack of Cheddar. A jar of mustard. No milk, of course.  Five bottles of beer. That'll do. He pops a lid. That, and something from the freezer.

The envelope is waiting.

He sits, bottle in hand, willing the microwave to chime.

He found it in the passenger footwell, a plain unmarked manila A4 envelope, fallen from Laura's lap, he assumed, as she climbed out. His heart leaps, she must need this, he can drive back to Wheatley, with her case and a peace offering - a bottle of wine? 

It's unlabelled, anonymous - he slides out the first few inches to peek - and freezes. Ridiculously he checks the street, left and right for curious eyes, twitching curtains. No one has seen him. He slides the envelope under his arm and hurries indoors, as if carrying a bottle through the green channel, or dodgy magazine past his mam.

Oh. Laura. So much for lines uncrossed.

Now it sits unopened on his table, next to his keys, ticking like a bomb.

It's a thick photocopy of the first draft Forensic file; Autopsy, SOCO, CSE. Slightly askew, as if run through the sorter in haste, as might happen if one were gathering up files, pulling on a coat, keeping an open eye for curious colleagues.

When he opens the envelope again, he will be the one crossing a line. 

In Laura's nightmare she finds her scalpel poised over the flesh of friends, folding back skin and sinew to reduce their complexity to so many cold cut of labelled meat.

In Robbie's, he peels back paper and pathologises their existence, the cracks, the stains, the greasy marks of ordinary messy lives, made criminal and shameful by exposure to the light.

The forensic eye incriminates us all.

The hysterical cackling of a studio audience masks the sound of sliding paper. Some quiz show.  He lied to me. He looked me in the eye, promised to tell me everything. He lied.

If I look, he need never know.

He slides out the thick wedge of paper, and turns over the first sheet, and starts to work through it, methodically, works his way through the pile, page by page, image by image, item by item.

- The contents of every cabinet and cupboard, every drug, soap, salve and poison, listed A to B to C... Anadin; Arret; Beechams; Benadryl; Biotex...

- Broken glass in the sink. Bloodied wad of tissue in the bin - 

Calvin Klein; Clinique; Colgate....

- Coal black fingerprints, on the table, the bread board, the handle of a hammer, in the margins of an open book, on the neck of a Gibson L-5 guitar - 

Comfort; Domestos; Dove; E-45; Fairy; Flash; Gaviscon; Gillette; Imodium; Kleenex; Lenor; Listerine...

- Coffee pot, half full, two coffee cups, half empty. A splash of red wine on a white rug- 

Marigold; Mr Muscle; Mycil; Nicorette; Niquitin; Nozema...

His shepherd's pie congeals and cools in its plastic trough as Robbie reads.  The room grows dark around him, but the images, flattened by the copier, remain ark bright in the flicker of the television screen.

Nytol; Persil; Pledge; Radox; Ralgex; Resolve...

- A framed photograph of a young woman with long fair hair and a shy smile - 

Right Guard; Savlon; Silvo; Solpadeine; Tresemme; Trust...

- A single hair, short, pale, curled, caught the eddy of a shower drain - 

Vaseline, Viakal; Vicks; Yardley...

A crumpled bed sheet -

Zantac...

-  and the luminol bright spray of seminal fluid pooled across it

…Zolpidem.

 

Robbie Lewis stands under steaming water, hot as he can stand, hot as the straining boiler can supply, and scrubs, until his skin is red and raw and the pipes in the walls groan.

Chapter Text

 

My senses had reeled from me out of pity
for the sorrow of those kinsmen and lost lovers.
Now they return, and waking gradually, 

I see new torments and new souls in pain
about me everywhere. Wherever I turn
away from grief I turn to grief again.

Dante Alighari. Divine Comedy: Inferno
Canto VI l 1-6

 

 

The dreamer wakes from a sleep of terror, darkness and pursuit, shuddering, heart pounding, breath ragged and opens his eyes into a darkness as total as the vault of his own skull.

There had been stairs, and bridges, and tunnels, and cellars, the roots of the city opening up endlessly under his feet, and at every landing, junction and doorway, It was always there ahead of him. It, the Beast, the low, lean, starved creature, padding through the long limitless night ahead of him, behind him, beside him, baring its teeth in a rank snarl and driving him onwards in fear, down, down, down until air and sun and stars faded from conscious recall

Robert Lewis, jerked into wakefulness, feels the thudding of his heart quieten, until he can again hear his own house around him, dark, silent, except for the tick-tick of the hot water tank, and the sound of traffic on the distant ring-road, like the sea.

He runs a hand through his hair. He needs a piss and drink to swill the clag of sleep from his mouth. He levers himself up, off the sofa, swinging his bare feet down to the floor - and into two inches of frigid water.

There is no light in the room. Not so much as the swing of passing headlights on the ceiling. He swears and stumbles, feet sliding in cold, sodden shagpile, bruising his hip on the table, reaching for the front door, for the light switch.

There are a few scant seconds in which his half-woken brain screams out the utter stupidity of what he is about to do, of the current lurking in the copper wires waiting to leap from his sweating palm to his wet feet and light him up like a candle.

Too late. The switch snaps downwards, his heart leaps in its cage. And nothing follows. No light. No power. No sudden deep-fried death. Just a dull click.

A burst pipe, a blown fuse, and cold water dripping down onto his bowed head and neck.

His phone. There is a light on his phone, enough to find a path into the kitchen, to the tool box, to his jacket and the torch he keeps there. He gropes back toward the table.

The Beast crouching beneath the table growls, long and low, and bares its teeth.

The dreamer stumbles, fleeing, downwards, always downward, thrashing thigh deep through dank water, thick cloying, stinking, unlit mud, into the roots, the foundations, cellars that have never seen sunrise, where forgotten men lie chained, nameless, loveless, eyeless, and paw with feeble hands at those who pass on.

And always, at his heels, the stalking beast.

Something catches the hem of his gown. It rips. It tangles. It forces him to his knees, jarring his hands. He kicks, and tears and crawls, but he is held fast. At any moment he will feel the fetid smoking breath on his face, and long teeth meeting in the soft flesh of his belly and groin. He raises despairing hands to beat it away...

... and seizes instead the head of a man, charred and cracked. Blue eyes burning in a waste of crusted skin. Blackened maw opening wide, spilling dust and a voice as dry as sand. “Lewis! What brings you here?"

He peers into the ruined face, and breathes Sir. Is this really you, here, sir?”

The old man, once his master, turns, glancing right, then left, then hisses “He watches well who notes well what he sees: who led you here?"

A sound like bees fills his ear, deafening him.

A light like needles fills his eye, blinding him.

He cannot tear his face and hands away from the burning thing, still mouthing words he can no longer hear.

And Robbie Lewis wakes again, on his hands and knees on the living room carpet, the dry carpet, face pressed to the television screen, his eyes full of hot grainy meaningless images.

The clock on the VCR flashes. 03.14. 03.15. 03.16.

He rocks back. The shapes on the screen reassemble into human form. Some 80s sitcom on repeat, that one about a father and son forced to share a flat? Their mouths move, and pout and stretch in wide rictus smiles without sound, triggering some vague sense of familiarity and unease.

He wipes his face with a shaking hand.

His belly and thighs are damp, sticky, not with blood, as he first half-fears, but with something just as intimate.

Nothing wrong with my plumbing after all, he thinks, as he resigns himself to the sleepless hours before dawn. See, Laura - all you needed was to scare the living daylights out of me.

Chapter Text

The house behind the hedge is bland, anonymous. The ground floor blinds are lowered, the door without a number, the bells without names. Just letters - A, B, C. Just one of the thousands of Victorian terraces spreading out from Oxford’s heart, each now subdivided into identical boxes to file away the thousands of aspiring professionals Oxford spawned.

There is nothing to suggest the passage of time, the year or even the day.  The laurel hedge is as dense and dusty in April as it was in December or will be in June, and the ugly lamp over the door still glows in the early morning light.

Robbie has been here before, of course he has, on early mornings like this, waiting behind the wheel for the door to open and James to bound down the steps, booted, suited and ready for work.

He's been across the threshold too, once or twice, maybe six times in seven years. James doesn't entertain. He brings the beer and the biryani, but it’s always Robbie who provides the plates, the sofa and the remote control.

But he does have the keys. Of course he does. He's James's Sexton, as James is his. Every unmarried copper has a Sexton. Many of the married too. The keeper of the keys, with the job of tidying away the uncomfortable details before a grieving mother or child or widow shows up. Last service for the dead. Smoothing out the sheets. Feeding the cat.  Cancelling the milk. Spiriting away the stash of porn or pot or whatever other trace evidence that might cause posthumous pain.

One bitter winter morning, colder than this, he had set match to paper in Morse's garden, black smoke billowing up into a pale sky, and the curtains of Summertown twitching around him.

No one is watching him now. It's just an ordinary suburban Saturday morning. Steam clouding a bathroom window, bacon, toast and Radio 2 on the morning air.

This is what Saturdays are for. A breathing space, a roll call of tasks to reset the week to zero, and has been for as long as Robbie can recall.

Normal stuff, the small change of life; swap the sheets, sort the laundry into three piles; dark, white and  dry cleaning. Empty the fridge, empty the bin. Drop off one suit and six shirts, (worn) at Khan's, the dry cleaner in the parade, pick up one suit and six shirts (cleaned, pressed, bagged). Fill the car, fill the fridge. Then a quick trim at Gianni's, which takes a little less time with each passing year.

Maybe, he'd thought, that morning, with his neighbours’ windows still in darkness examining his own hollow-eyed reflection, maybe, when he retires, he should take the clippers to what is left up there. Except then, he'd be just all pink, all ears, like a baby’s sippy cup. 

He had sighed, and smoothed his hair down again, and because he couldn’t sleep, and because he has always done these things, every Saturday for almost 30 years, ever since he came out of uniform, whether the house was full of Radio 2 and frying bacon and children's voices, or empty and echoing to every step, he did them again this morning.

He had disposed of the leaking tomato in the fridge, the half inch of cheese in the milk carton bought three weeks earlier, and scraped the congealed shepherd's pie into the bin. He had set to one side the suit and shirt and tie he would wear if the phone rang to summon him into work, and to the other the suit and shirts which he would drop off at Khan's.  And he had emptied his suitcase onto the bed in three piles; dark, white and gifts.

As he'd sorted, the bedroom slowly filled with the scent of socks, sun, soap, sweat and cypress leaves.

Soap for Lyn,  in pretty printed paper. A patchwork elephant for Jack. Sweets for Mark, something white studded with hazelnuts, wrapped in the same pretty paper, but already shedding a cloud of icing sugar onto the duvet. Robbie really no longer has any idea what Mark would actually want or need. He’d had a sweet tooth at fifteen, but now? Who knows.

And, also, carefully folded into tissue paper, and sealed with the stamp of a tiny boutique opposite Santa Maria Novella, a tie, in sea-green silk, for James.

An impulse buy, too extravagant really. James will be expecting a “Duomo-in-a-Snow-Storm” paperweight or a bottle opener with the head of Michaelangelo’s David.  Something to add with solemn thanks and appreciation to the tangle of truly, wonderfully awful gifts they have each accumulated in their desk drawers.

Embarrassed by its beauty, he pushed the little package out of sight, into his left breast pocket, and decided he would drop it into St Anthony’s later, just to check that James was ok, maybe to offer to clean up the flat once Maitland has cleared it.

But it’s still there, an hour later, as he sits outside not the overgrown drive of St Anthony’s, but the bland blue door of number 57, turning his Sexton’s key over and over in his fingers.

He has no idea why he is watching the empty flat.  Some vague half-formed impulse to collect clean clothes and toothbrush, so that the tie can be handed over as an after-thought, but, of course, that is nonsensical.  If he were free to collect anything, James would be free to return.  He should just drive away and complete the morning’s errands. He even goes so far as to slide his own key into the ignition, before he snatches it back, and jogs across the road and up the cement steps.

The flat is lighter than he expected, light streaming in from the garden, through the French windows, pressing damp windblown daffodils against the glass.

It smells warm, human. Smoke, aftershave, skin.

This is what he needed to see; the whole, the lived in living space. Otherwise those flash-lit flattened images of the SOCO report would haunt him through another night.  This is what he does best.  He looks, he sees, and, sometimes, he understands.

His heart leaps at the shadow outlined on the sofa; hunched shoulder, curved hip, long pale neck, and for a moment he skips the memory of breaking the yellow tape sealing the door, and believes he has intruded on James, still sleeping off the humiliations of the previous day.

But it’s just a guitar, laid aside, against the arm of the sofa, waiting to be reclaimed. He brushes it with his fingers as he passes, and the strings shiver and moan in the thick silence.

Everywhere there are signs of life in suspension; unwashed plates, empty packaging, full bin, still waiting for Saturday. There's even a pink dry cleaning slip with the loose change on the breakfast bar; Hathaway - 1 suit/6 shirts/heel & resole.

And over everything, everywhere, little blue-black smudges of fingerprint powder.

There were blue-black stains on Granda Lewis's hands. "Won't come out, Bobbie Bach," he would say, in the sing-song accent he had brought north from the valley of his birth. "That damn coal's been working its way in under the skin for 50 years."

He follows the trail of smudges into the bathroom;  bath mat askew, a spot of blood on the tiles, a splash on the shower screen. Just a screen. Not a shower curtain, or the absence of a shower curtain. Not that Robbie had ever thought cartoon Hippos would be James's style.

As he opens the cabinet over the sink the mirror swings, its reflection panning across the tiles, the open door, the bedroom beyond, throwing each into new configurations.

That's what we do, Robbie thinks, when we invade a life like this. We tear it into pieces - photographs, test results, lists, numbers, dates - then rearrange them into new patterns, new stories, testing them - could this be true? Or this? How does that sit within the frame of our knowing?

There is of course no Zolpidem on the shelf; he already knows it’s been taken, to be tested, to be matched against the dark grains in Dunn's gut, to the dregs in the unwashed coffee cups.

Do we ever really get to the core, the unassailable truth? Robbie thinks of the suitcase he’d tugged from the darkness under Morse's bed, when he’d performed his office as Sexton, an old cardboard thing, as old as Robbie himself, of the magazines folded inside, and the pity and horror that had stirred in him as he turned the pages.

He closes the cabinet door. The mirror snaps quietly back into place, his own tired eyes centred in the frame once more.

Chapter Text

But there is nothing hidden under James Hathaway's bed. Not even dust on the hardwood floor.

In the drawers - only what one would expect. Underpants, t shirts, socks.

On the bed, nothing but two bare pillows and the faintest suggestion of a dent in the stripped mattress, on the side closest to the bedside cabinet.

Robbie sits on the bed. The sheets and slips and duvet must be in the lab. Well, one less load of Saturday laundry. He lies down. James's scent envelopes him; bitter smoke, sharp sweat  and a clean musky sweetness. He closes his eyes and breathes in, the sense that James is lying next to him suddenly so vivid that he almost feels the mattress shift beneath him.

He blinks the phantom away. On the cabinet a grey knitted monkey with a ravelled ear,  wearing a long sash of white plastic beads, a child's first rosary. And a book. Religious art. Saints. He’d seen enough of that in Florence. He flicks through - yes, he'd swear that one looks familiar, a lad tied to a tree, his arms twisted into painful angles, his face turned up the sun, the pale flesh of neck and thigh pierced with arrows, through and through. And all around him life continues oblivious, farmers walking home from the fields, a soldier watering his horse, all turned towards life, away from the boy's lonely agony.

He tries to imagine James, lying here, reading this book. Does he sleep as covered up as he lives, buttoned to the neck in pyjamas? Or does that huge mirror on the wall - what, it must for 4 foot square - does the glass reflect James back as no one else is permitted too - naked, tender, exposed. Framed.

"Are you contaminating my crime scene, DI Lewis?"

She's leaning in the doorway, watching him. He curses himself for not hearing, not seeing her there. And how long has she been watching?

He strangles an urge to scramble to his feet, swallows his apology, and calmly lays the book aside.

"Is this a crime scene, Siobhan? I haven’t seen anything here to suggest more than a night in with an old friend.”

Maitland peels away from the door frame. "Blood on the table, in the sink."

"The blood is Hathaway's - you already know that."

"Hathaway says the blood is Hathaway's. I prefer to wait for the DNA results. So what were you looking for?"

She hasn't mentioned the Zolpidem. Of course she hasn't mentioned the Zolpidem, because she should have no idea he knows there was ever Zolpidem here.

"I'm Hathaway's Sexton."

"He's not dead. Come on, Robbie, even when you were Morse's whipping boy you were quicker than this."

He shrugs. "I needed to see for myself. To understand."

She nods. "Me too." She sits beside him, forcing him to shift, to give her space.

"So, what's he like? Really. Not what Innocent wants to me know, or what that old sweat Hooper thinks I ought to hear. "

"Siobhan. Talk to him yourself. Get it over with; interview him, formally, informally, whatever you like. “

"Oh, I tried. Believe me. Drove all the way out, and those old crows at St Anthony refused to admit me to their club for pathetic ex-vicars. 'It's a day of prayer'; ‘Mr Hathaway is on retreat'; my presence ‘distresses the residents’. Apparently I need a penis to cross the threshold - or a warrant."

"And you need evidence for a warrant..."

"And at the moment, the victim and this flat are the only evidence I have, so I'm keeping both locked up tight. Look, I understand - colleagues can get very close, feelings get tangled up..."

"Well, you would know, Siobhan."

"And you're still acting like the jealous girlfriend, after all these years. Did I tread on your toes? People used to talk about you and Morse back then, you know, trying to work out why you followed him around like a kicked puppy, panting when he tugged on your leash? Did he make you sit up and beg?"

Robbie's face burns. She's chosen her words careful, watching his reaction to each. Dog, whip, leash. She wants to know if he understands, how much he knew. The suitcase under the bed, the spread flesh, folded and stapled and collared.

She bursts out laughing.

"Oh, you should see your face! I'm joking! Robbie Lewis, you're the straightest man I've ever met."

"Ha, bloody ha."

"It's a compliment. I learned so much from watching you, how much someone so utterly secure in what and who they were could achieve. Strong, honest, straight down the line. You had a hinterland... "

"A what?"

"A real life, outside the bloody job. A wife, kids, a home. It made you a better cop than any of the rest of us.”

"Get away with you."

"I mean it. It’s important, the people you love, and who love you back."

"It's all gone now."

She shakes her head "No, it's not. Innocent told me about Jack Cornish. You brought him in. That must have been tough - you were good friends, I remember – but you brought him in because it was the right thing to do."

She picks up the little knitted monkey, and looks it in the eye. "So tell me. What's he like?”

Robbie gently takes the toy from her hand.

"Smart. Very. Smarter than Morse. No, really. He reads people better, most of the time. The world isn't a puzzle to him, he understands how it works, how to make it work for him. Sharp as a knife."

"Sharp enough to cut?"

"Only himself. Siobhan - he's the kind of bloke who pushes people out of the path of runaway trains. He's all about saving people, like it’s a mission. For God, from God, I don't know. It's what he is. It's just... Sometime I think he doesn't know how to save himself. What did you call it, that thing you said I had? 'Winterland'?

"Hinterland. The stuff you fall back on, the place you come from."

"That's just it - Hathaway's got nothing like that. No family, partner, children, cat. He had God, I suppose, but then he walked away from that .” He carefully sits the monkey and beads back on the closed book, out of harm’s way, and stands, forcing her off the bed with him. “Far as I can tell he hasn't had a home, a real home, since he was twelve. There's just - this-" His gesture is meant to encompass the whole flat, and everything in it,  “andI think he would walk away from all of this in an instant." Well maybe he'd take the guitar. "So, do you have someone?"

She nods, "I did. A doctor, as it happens. A shrink. We - ah - split up last year. I gather that conscious uncoupling is the fashionable term."

"Kids?"

"Two of hers. I still see them, from time to time, but they're grown now."

"I'm sorry."

"Yeah. What happened to us, Robbie?"

"We just got old. It's our turn to be irrelevant."

"You should have left Morse you know. That old man sucked out the best of your life. He'd have done the same for me if I hadn't the guts to move on when I did.”

"It's a pity you didn't have the guts to say goodbye. We just come into work one day, and you're gone again. Transfer application withdrawn. Not a call, not a note, not a letter."

"It was better that way, trust me. He never listened to what he didn't want to hear..."

"He deserved better, Siobhan."

"So did we. So do we all."

Robbie thinks of glossy flesh coloured paper, curling up and away into ash in winter sky.

"Look, Robbie - I may have slept with Morse, and I may have made some bad decisions – but you never did. No, it’s true. I was on a mission, I needed to save people – and I had all the knowledge, all the zeal, right on my side. I learned from you – how to be patient, to wait for the evidence, and then - only then - to act on it.”

She's waiting for her evidence now, the truth of sugar, coffee, blood and semen, to test it against what she knows of the world and the people in it. Just as a good detective should, as he would, as James would.

He sighs. "Alright. I'll speak to Hathaway, get him to talk to you. So you can judge for yourself. And if – if – you find any evidence, and you get that warrant, then I'll bring him in myself."

Chapter Text

"This is not an answering service. No, I'm not going to start running up and down stairs looking for people - what do you think this is? Some kind of student hall? Make an appointment with the office - yes, by email. I'll spell it again: ess-tee-ay-en-tee-aitch-oh-en-two-six-seven at btinternet.com. What? Well I dare say it will be checked by the secretary when he gets back from Tonbridge on Wednesday. This line is for emergencies only. Good day."

So much for modern communications, thinks Robbie, as he slides the phone back into his pocket, and opens the car door. The only other number he has for St Anthony's - presumably the secretary's - just rings out. James's own phone is, of course, sitting in an evidence locker. He'll just have to speak to James the old fashioned way, face to face.

He retrieves the bag from the back seat. An offering, not only of the essentials - toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant - but the right toothpaste, the right shampoo, as if the clinical catalogue of names and quantities in his head is nothing more sinister than a Christmas wish list. The right underpants too; not a pack of four blue cotton bikini briefs like those he's been popping into his basket at M&S every six months since Lyn left home. These are the result of an expedition into Austin Reed on Cornmarket Street, the only place he canthink of, off the top of his head, which would stock Calvin Klein. He hadn't even baulked at the cost, despite wincing as he realised they were £23 each. They'd better be woven from the spun tears of angels to justify that price.

The restoration of power, however temporary, seems to have brought the house on Isis Way creaking back into life. There is a small clutch of cars parked in the rutted driveway, ranging from an Elastoplast-coloured Ford with a dog blanket on the parcel shelf, to a gleaming black people-carrier with a discrete hire-company sticker above the number plate. There are lights gleaming from behind the thick veil of ivy over the windows, and raised voices from the door, which stands ajar.

The argument rises to a pitch as Robbie approaches, and the door is wrenched open by a red-faced, grey-haired, bull-built man in black before the bell has completed its first heavy swing. "What? Don't you people realise this is a private house? No one here wants Sky television!"

It's the same bellow that had answered the St Anthony's phone only a few minutes before, the same point-blank refusal to confirm or deny whether Mr Hathaway or Father Waite were at home, let along facilitate communication. The house is closed to all except those in immediate need of its shelter, and its doorkeeper is unmoveable. He can leave the bag, but he can't cross the threshold.

Robbie fingers itch for his warrant card, his magic passport, but he already knows it is unlikely to work here. Instead he grabs one of his contact cards, scrawls "Call me" on the back and drops it into the bag.

Then he turns away to seek Conn Patterson, and another way of getting a message to James.

"Inspector Lewis?" Robbie turns back. The big man is still on the doorstep, looking at the card with a perplexed expression.

"Yes?"

"I think you'd better step inside for a moment.”

Chapter Text

Adejole is waiting for Robbie in the little room where he last saw James, only a day before. He lays aside his book and rises, offering his hand. “You came! Thank the Lord; Father Waite has been asking for you all morning, but we didn’t know how to contact you.”

“Inspector Hathaway has my number… “

Adejole frowns. "But Mr Hathaway is not here.”

"What!"

"He went out, very early this morning - for cigarettes, he said. I lent him £20, and a coat. He’s not been back since."

Robbie quells a prickle of fear. "And you weren’t concerned?"

"He is our guest, not our prisoner. He doesn't need permission to take a walk."

“You do realise that one of your former guests has been murdered, another is missing - and you are refusing to co-operate with a police investigation!"

"I? I am co-operating with you right now, Inspector.”

"My colleague DS Maitland called here last night – you – or Father Waite, or that belligerent chap downstairs, shut the door in her face.”

“Ah, that was Clive. He was only following the rules of the house. This is a haven for some troubled fellows. Some just need a bit of a helping hand – but others, well, they are tormented by the distance between their vocation and their weak nature. And all too often women are the source of that torment. We try to keep the house free of that provocation.”

“Provocation! For pity's sake, man, what century are you living in! Women aren’t a provocation. They are just people, like you and me, and locking yourself away from them won’t prevent sin. I know only too well that people can find any excuse for evil inside their own heads, without outside help!”

“You are quite right. And now I have made you angry, which I regret. Please, Father Waite has not been well since last night, and between you and me, I don’t believe he has very many days left amongst us. He very much wants to speak to you, and it may be that, as well as providing relief to his mind, he can provide just the information you seek. Come, through here… Ah – Father Waite has drifted off again. He does that from time to time – the drugs I believe. He will wake again soon, I am sure. You’ll wait? I can fetch you some tea – or coffee? Very well. I will leave you alone together.” And he closes the door behind him, leaving Robbie with the sleeping priest in his spare white washed bedroom.

There is no chair, so Robbie sits on the window sill, in the warm spring sunshine. The sound of a lawn-mower drifts up from the world below. Down there, beyond the wilderness of St Anthony's garden and decayed wooden fence, Conn Patterson is mowing his own neat patch of green. A dozen boxes of bright pansies are laid out ready for planting in the freshly turned borders.

Robbie can see the change in the old man for himself. Adejole might not know the significance of the pear-drop acetone scent on his breath, but Robbie recognises the evidence of the disease hollowing him out from within. Something has happened in the last 24 hours to loosen his grip on the world. His eyes twitch under the paper thin lids. What does he see, Robbie wonders, what dreams trouble a dying man? Memories of the past, or the hopes and fears he projects into the future.

He turns his attention to the bedside cabinet, where, among the paraphernalia of sickness, sit a bible and two pictures, the only personal objects in the otherwise bare room.

One, postcard-sized depicts a tonsured monk caressing a plump simpering baby, presumably the Christ Child, who for some reason is perched precariously on an open book. The other is more intriguing - a photograph, black and white, of a group of young men in long robes playing football on a dusty field under a fierce foreign sun. One, a dark, handsome bearded youngster has just scored, and raises his hands in triumph.

"Me. In a past life.” Father Waite is watching him from the bed. “How fast it seems to have flown. You would think all those hours spent contemplating eternity might have prepared me for that, but no; it’s still a surprise to find myself so old so soon. And that other chap - that is St Anthony, after whom this house is named.”

"The one who had nightmares in the desert? My lad had the Dali poster on his wall for years, the one with the elephant."

"Wrong St Anthony; St Anthony Abbot was indeed harassed by erotic temptations, whereas St Anthony of Padua was troubled by a lost book. A student at the seminary where he taught ran away and took a valuable book with him. St Anthony prayed and the book was returned. History is silent on the subject of the young man's fate. It’s a bad painting I’m afraid."

"Well, I know nothing about art.”

“I doubt that, somehow. Your eyes are everywhere, pinning down the meaning of every detail you see.”

“Father Waite, I was told you might have something to tell me. Something about Mickey Dunn’s death?"

"Did you ever wonder to whom the priest makes his confession. I have heard details of so many transgressions - who do you suppose listens to mine?"

"I don’t know – perhaps you should tell me?"

But Waite seems to be wandering back into his past. "When I was a much younger man, I served for a time in Liverpool. I had a very good friend, with a parish in Rochdale, and once every few months or so we would visit each other and get the business over with. I would hear his penance, he would hear mine, and then we could settle to a long, and happy evening together - good wine, good food, good conversation. His housekeeper was an excellent cook - but I could afford better wine!"

"Sounds a bit cosy to me."

"Collusion. That's the word on your tongue, isn’t it? Or cover up?

“Well, you have to admit I’d have reason to be suspicious of an arrangement like that – it might just involve admitting to speeding, or uncharitable thoughts about a neighbour – “

“Or something much, much worse.”

“We both know what that means. If your friend – or any of the other boys in your club – had confessed to worse, say rape or murder - what would you have done? You’ve already told me you wouldn’t turn them in. So – what would you do? Pat them on the head, say there, there, try not to do it again, now pass me the cork screw?”

The priest snorts, “And are you any better?” and the sudden fire in his eyes recalls vividly the powerful presence he must have had before the cancer ate his strength.

“Are the police any less of a “boy’s club”? Any less prone to cover-up and collusion and scratching each other’s back? On a lovely April Saturday, just like this one, I went to watch a football match, and watched, helpless, trapped, as 96 young men and women - some my own parishioners - had the life crushed out of them. And what were the police doing? What have they done for 25 years since? Lied. They smeared the reputations of the dead, and abused those who tried to save them. The mocked the pain of mothers waiting for children who would never come home. They shared brandy and cigars with newspaper editors to make sure that the truth would never be told, and the men responsible would never pay. Now that’s what I call ‘cosy’!”

The two men eye each other, like tom cats meeting in disputed territory, unwilling to attack, unable to withdraw. Robbie wonders if James is the mouse under Waite’s paw. He chooses his words, carefully. “I have been a policeman for over 30 years, and I have never lied to protect a colleague or frame a victim.”

Waite’s eye’s narrow. “But others have, and you have kept silent.”

It’s not a question, but Robbie finally nods in assent. “Once or twice.”

It seems to satisfy Waite. “We are very alike, you and I. Sins of Omission.”

That triggers a moment of recall; James, in darkness in the back of a car, yellow and blue light reflected in his eye. “What did you say?”

“Sin of Omission. ‘Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.’ – The Epistle of James the Just.

"One day, my friend sat at my fire side and told me something no penance and contrition and absolution could ever wipe away. Because he was not contrite. He didn't need my forgiveness, only my understanding.

"You would not think it a sin at all. Certainly not a crime; he had doubts - small ones, initially, but they had chipped away at the vast edifice of belief built since St Peter heard confessions in secret in the catacombs under Rome, until he brought it all crashing down on his head. He could no longer believe in the existence of the God he was bound to serve.

"I could not console him. His new convictions frightened me - so I asked him to leave. And he did. He left his comfortable home, his friends, his life's work, and he went out into a world that had no place for him.

"I expected to hear from him. I expected a letter, once he got a bit of perspective. We'd meet up, joke about his adventures out there together. I missed him, but I was too proud to reach out to him.

"Instead, three years later, I got a telephone call, informing me of his death, and asking me when I would collect his effect.  He died alone, in a horrible room in a seaside town, friendless, penniless. He had lain there undiscovered for days. No one had missed him - except me. My brilliant, gentle, loving friend..." the old man's voice trails off into a choked sob, almost inaudible. Tears are leaking, slow and cold, through the maze of skin on his cheeks.

"That's why you set up this place."

"It's my penance. These men were called to save others, and then find no one to save them. I sold my wine, sold all I had to buy this house and open its doors to them all - whatever their doubts. Whatever their sins. Some never leave - and then there are those like our James, who have travelled so far, and with such grace..." He grips Robbie's hand with surprising strength, pulling him in, towards his confidence, until they are eye to eye. "James will need you. Be his friend. Do not abandon him."

"If you know anything, anything that can help, tell me now." The old man shakes his head, whether to indicate that he knows nothing, or can say nothing, Robbie cannot tell. “Is he protecting someone here, someone who might have reason to fear exposure?” Waite sighs. “Come on – ‘Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sinning’. Just tell me what you can”. The old man squeezes his eyes shut. His lips move. Robbie leans in to catch his words.

“Me. He is protecting me.” Waite’s clawed hand reaches out and grasps Robbie’s wrist with a terrifying strength "Please. I beg you. Do not let him fall into despair."

Chapter Text

The paramedic has left his blues running, and the light, lazily flashing back from the windows and brass of St Anthony's has drawn half a dozen onlookers keen to enliven a slow Saturday with a little reflected drama, Conn Patterson, among them, secateurs in hand, grass stains on his knees and a look of deep concern on his face.

Robbie crosses the driveway to intercept him on the pavement. "I'm afraid Father Waite’s taken a turn for the worst, they're just making him a bit more comfortable."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Mr Lewis - my Mo will be too. She's very much attached to him."

The car keys jingle in Robbie's hand, his skin itches with the need to get moving, to find James. By Adejole's account it has been seven hours since he left St Anthony's in a borrowed coat after sitting up with Waite for most of the night.

He could call uniform, ask them to keep an eye open, but on what grounds? He could get in the car and cruise the streets and paths, but in which direction?

A cigarette run sounds like a reasonable enough pretext, but where has he been in the hours since. It is warm enough now, in the sunshine, but the night was bitter. Of course, there was nothing to stop him buying a pack then making a call with the change. But to whom?

"You look all in, Inspector!"

"Aye..."

After all these years he is hazy about James's other friends and contacts. James has watched his faltering relationships for years, but James's always seem to leap out at him from nowhere. James has Lyn's number - but Robbie has not one emergency contact for James, bar a solicitor in Bicester, whose recorded message promises to return calls after the bank holiday weekend, and proffers a 0800 number for out-of-hours emergencies.

"Not getting enough sleep, by the look of you."

There's the band, he knows, he's met them once - that double bass player, George? Didn't James joke about George buying two tickets on the bus to rehearsals, one for himself one for the instrument - but a bus from where?

That gay lad, the film maker, is he still in Oxford? Robbie recalls something about him moving, to Cardiff perhaps, some job with the BBC. And just how close were they anyway? He has no idea.

Nicotine. The most faithful relationship James has. The old flame he has never shaken off. He must know the location of every tab machine and vendor within a 5 minute walk of the nick. Always has. Robbie can't imagine that's changed in 10 years. He needs some local intelligence.

"Mr Patterson-"

"Call me Conn, everyone does."

"Where would someone buy cigarettes round here?"

"Oh, I wouldn't know - we don't smoke, see. I did, before we married, but my Mo wouldn't have it. There used to be a bit of a shop on the parade - newspapers, bread, milk, that sort of thing, but it closed down. Most people drive to the big Tesco's now."

"That's an all-nighter, isn't it?"

"That's the one, opened a year or two back. It’s on the wrong side of the ring road, mind. You'd have to take the car. Anyway it's not cigarettes you need, Inspector - What you want is a strong cup of tea."

And from there, James could have gone - anywhere. Disappeared into the endless river of white and red lights streaming out of Oxford into the darkness.

The answer is not out there – it’s here, in this house, in whatever happened here two nights ago – or ten years before that. Where would someone who needed to think, to walk, to smoke, head from here, ten years ago?

And here he is talking to the one person who was here, who might tell him what Waite cannot and James will not.

"Actually, I think I could do with a cuppa - if it's not too much trouble."

He trails Conn into the cul-de-sac behind Isis Way, to a small bungalow, overshadowed by the ivy clad bulk of St Anthony's. In its own small way, it is just as dated, but with none of its neighbour’s air of neglect. The windows are bright and clean, the paintwork fresh, the path and garden weed-free and blowing with tulips and winter pansies.

There is a slender, almost girlish figure perched in the doorway, like a bird about to take wing.

"Now, just to warn you, Inspector, Conn says, just short of the gate, “My Maureen is a bit on the nervous side. Has been ever since…well, anyway, go easy on the details. I'm not for the God thing, myself - but Mo, well, he was very kind to her. Here I am, my love, don’t you fret!"

 "I heard voices, Conn." Her voice is light, and Robbie notes how she holds her head, cocked, as if searching for the source of the sounds around her.

"No need to fret, old girl. This is a friend of Father Waite's, come round for a brew - Mr Lewis, my Maureen."

"Pleased to meet you, Mrs Patterson." Robbie holds out his hand. She turns towards him without releasing her grip of the door frame, as if she fears to be blown away. Her pale green eyes gaze out a face clean of make-up, freckled like a wren’s egg, framed by faded red hair caught at the side by a clip. She ignores his hand, because, he realises, she cannot see it, or him, or the carefully planted flowers in her garden.

"How is the father?” she asks, and, mindful of Conn's warning and her precarious perch, Robbie replies, "Hanging on in there, Mrs Patterson, hanging on in."

Which is true enough. Robbie can still feel the steel -spring grip of Waite's fingers on his wrist, and his peardrop-scented plea. He had lent in to that fierce gaze, to hear more, to know more, to reassure, to take the burden of the old man's fear and guilt.

But the fingers had fallen away, and then the face, falling to one side like a candle left too close to a gas fire. No sound emerged from the sagging mouth except a gasping babble, and Robbie had called Adejole into the room even as the stroke started to burn the old man’s certainties away.

Even as Robbie thumbed the call through to dispatch, summoning paramedics to preserve Waite and his secrets, he had found himself watching the young priest, as focused on the next life as he himself was on saving this. Robbie has seen death in so many forms. He knows what Adejole was about, recognises the tiny silver cup, the little tin marked with a cross that would hold, as far as at least two of the men in that room were concerned, the living body of their God.

"Pink wafer, Mr Lewis?" Conn Patterson is shaking a biscuit tin at him across the coffee table. The Pattersons have a liking for brightly coloured nursery food. Not just the violently tinted wafers, but a selection of iced blue and yellow party rings, and several jammy dodgers.

Maureen reaches for the teapot. "Best not, old girl," says Conn, tenderly incepting her hand, squeezing gently. "It's a bit heavy. We don't get a lot of visitors, Mr Lewis, not since Father Waite took sick, last autumn. Sugar?"

Maureen subsides into her chair, apparently happy to let her husband fuss, her smile warm, but distant, as if she is listening to some secret music inaudible to the rest of them. She seems half the age of Conn, but only, Robbie realises, because she has the smooth ageless look of a life suspended, as if at some point her world ceased to move forward with the rest of them. She probably doesn't get out of this room very much - there is no car in the drive way, no oil or tyre marks on the smooth concrete, just Conn's bicycle, leaning against the wall and freshly polished.

But then, he reflects, as he takes his cup and waves away the sugar bowl, there might be worse places to be trapped. It's a lovely room, chairs and tables placed just so, everything with a place, a little old fashioned, even the CD player now looking like something from a bygone era. Everything a little worn, but spanking sparkling clean. Maureen sits like a queen, surrounded by warmth and light, despite the looming shadow of St Anthony's extension, which seems to butt almost to the shared fence.

"Is that the annex then?" he asks.

"Jerry-built, I'm afraid, just after the war. Damp and insanitary, not safe at all. I offered to help rewire it, a few years back, but they never raised the funds.

"I was an electrical engineer, see, before I took early retirement, at Castle Bromwich, that's the old Jaguar line, but I did my apprenticeship at Cowley, and I always liked Oxford. Civilised place, a good town to raise kids, grow some flowers and be on friendly terms with the neighbours."

That's what's missing. Children. Robbie hadn't put his finger on it until that moment. There aren't that many pictures in the room, naturally enough in the circumstances, and only one of a child, a little boy with Maureen's freckles and smile, half shy, half mischievous, perched on a chopper bike. No school photos, no graduation, no wedding photographs, or snaps of grandchildren.

"You seem to be on good terms with your neighbours across the way.” The tea is hot and strong and good. Robbie realises how thirsty he had become.

"Well. that's down to Father Waite. He's a gentleman. You can tell he was born in a better class than most.” Conn Patterson loads sugar into his own cup as he speaks. “I'm not saying the Sisters were bad neighbours, and I helped them a bit about the place - but the girls they took in, they were a handful. Hardened little tarts, some of them, they used to slommuck around, hanging out of the windows, all hours, calling out all kinds of filth. Words I’d never even heard on the factory floor! It was very upsetting to Mo."

"It didn't really bother me, love. They were just lassies, having a bit a cant."

"Well, when Father Waite bought the place, he came round almost at once to introduce himself, set our minds at rest - see, there was talk back then of the council buying the place from the nuns, and turning it into a bail hostel of all things"

"When was that again?" Robbie asks. "That he bought the house?"

"Oh, well - let’s see, we moved here in '94, and the sisters moved out in '98. Father Waite paid for the new fence, and had some of the windows on the extension bricked up, to give us a bit more privacy."

"Are you staying at St Anthony's, Mr Lewis?"

Robbie glances at Conn before answering. "No, Mrs Patterson - I'm with the police."

"Mr Lewis is a detective, old girl."

"Are you investigating something?"

"Now, Mo, don't you go thinking police work's like it is on the telly. It’s not like that Midsommer Murders, is it Mr Lewis, eh?"

"Call me Robbie."

"It’s not all murders and bodies in the library, like that John Nettles has to worry about. I don't suppose the Inspector here sees more than one body a year, if that!"

"Your husband’s right, Mrs Patterson, you’ve nothing to worry about - I'm just looking into an accident a few night’s back.”

"One of the fathers?"

 

“Not really – someone who used to live there, a while back. You might remember him. Michael Dunn - some people called him Mickey?”

"Mo's never set foot in the place, have you girl? And, like I said yesterday, I can't recall this Dunn at all."

"Yes you do, Conn! The young fellow with the camera."

“What – him? I caught taking pictures of my Mo over the fence, without so much by your leave. Was that Dunn? He had a nerve!”

"He was just lonely, Conn. He said the garden looked like heaven. I think he just wanted a little bit of what he missed. Go on, show him the pictures."

"Pictures? I don’t recall…"

"Go on. They’re in my old sewing box, in the cabinet."

Conn looks stumped. “I’d no idea you’d kept them.”

Robbie dusts the crumbs from his hands, “I'd love to have a peek - oh, thank you, Mrs Patterson, don't mind if I do." He takes another wafer and balances it on his saucer, as Conn rummages through the glass fronted cabinet with pursed lips, and returns with an old fashioned basket, full of rusted pins, odd buttons, and a half-darned sock, a rusted needle still wedged in the wool. There are several photographs, wedged in the side, one or two snatched as Conn suggested from the window high above the garden, a handful taken on the lawn itself, on a bright day with the cherry in blossom.

"I asked him to print them out for me," says Maureen, glowing with pride at being the star of photographs she will never see.

And there she is, in black and white, a picture of contentment, sitting among the flowers, smiling shyly, mischievously. And there, at her feet sprawled out on the grass, is James, absurdly young, gazing up through the camera at the man who would try to blackmail him ten years later.

"You must have been out, Conn, the day them came round to apologise. Michael and his friend. Oh, now he had a lovely voice. Smoked like a chimney. Nerves, I expect. They are all nervous when they arrive, Father Waite's boys. I made them orange squash."

"Could I borrow this?" Robbie asks, aware of a glow in his face, as if this weren't a perfectly routine request. "I'll make sure you get it back."

"Did you say Mickey'd been in an accident?"

"Two nights back."

"That would be the night the lights went out next door."

"Aye, that's the one. We think maybe Mr Dunn was heading towards St Anthony's. What time did the power go off?”

"About ten thirty - Conn got a phone call."

"No, no Mo - it was much later than that - past eleven, it was Mr Lewis. Mo drifts off a bit in the evenings, don't you old girl? After you have your hot milk. It was past eleven when they rang."

"Who made the call?" 

"That African chap, I suppose. But you could see it from here - the whole house in darkness. I made sure Mo was safely tucked up, then went over to see what I could do to help. There must have been about seven or eight of them, sitting in the dark.”

"So, Mickey Dunn could have been there - at the vigil?"

"Well, now you mention it, yes. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I suppose he might have been - sandy haired chap, wasn't he, on the short side? Yes- he could have been there."

"What about Mr Hathaway?"

"Ha, no. Now that I'd know for certain. Great tall lanky chap like him. Stand out. No. I didn't see Mr Hathaway. I just did what I could which was little enough, then went home."

"He was chilled to the bone when he came back, Mr Lewis. Feet like ice."

Conn blushes and takes Maureen's hand in his own, in a way that Robbie finds oddly touching. “Now, now, old girl. The Inspector doesn't need to know that sort of thing!"

Robbie dunks his wafer in the last few inches of tea, and indulges in the sharp nostalgia in the contrast of hot sweet pulp and crisp shards.

Isn't this the life he’s always wanted? A life of small, sweet comforts, clean and content, decline and darkness warded off with the practical magic of paint and polish and winter pansies. He can imagine Val, curled in a chair in a pool of spring sunshine, her auburn head bent over a book, while he forks up the spuds for their lunch. Or Laura. Perhaps this is what life with Laura will be like, a decade from now. Except, he realises, it would be Laura in the garden. If he's honest he wouldn't know which end of a potato plant to put in the soil.

The air suddenly feels close, the room over warm. He needs fresh air. He needs to move, to find James. He drains the last chewy dregs of tea. "I'd best be on my way - thanks for the brew. Could I just use your, um -? "

"Bathroom? Of course, second on the left."

The bathroom is as neat and safe and clean as the rest of the little house. Two glasses, two toothbrushes. No rug, obviously, nothing to tangle a blind woman's feet, just a nonslip floor. Shelves clear of clutter, safety lock on the cabinet, no lock on the door. A wooden chair by the bath, and one of those rubber hoses, hung over the bath taps, the ones folk washed their hair with before they had showers. Before they had baths even, as Robbie remembers from his Nana Robb's house in Seghill.

No mirror. Of course. At least this time he doesn't have to watch himself snooping into other people's lives, other people's tragedies. Has a cop ever asked to use a civilian’s bathroom in complete innocence? He wonders if his state licensed curiosity will simply wither away after retirement, and he will be able to relieve himself without checking that his hosts aren’t concealing a murder weapon among the clean towels.

He shakes himself dry, flushes, washes his hands and leaves.

Conn is hovering in the hallway, to usher him out of the front door, out of Maureen's hearing.

"Thank you for being discrete, Inspector. She's better than she was, but she has nightmares... well, it was worse when we could hear the babies, in the annex. The crying would wake her and she'd go looking for our own little lad, wandering about in the dark."

"What happened?"

"Drunk driver. Christmas, see. Mo was driving Peter to see his Gran."

"I'm sorry."

"He was a grand lad. Lovely. Losing him – I had to be strong for both of us. For a while I thought I'd lost them both – but it was Father Waite who brought my Mo back to me. We’ve been happy ever since, just the two of us."

"She's a beautiful woman, Conn."

"You know, Inspector, I've been thinking, about the cigarettes. Was it Dunn you were thinking of? It’s just, there was a place..."

"Yes - "

"Well, going back a bit, some of the residents were members of a club, just a few streets over, in Coal Hill Cut..."

"What, the Bricklayers?"

"You know it then?"

"Aye, well I'm a cop, I'm supposed to know stuff like that."

"Ah, well, I suppose you would know it. It had a certain reputation, back in the day. Still, live and let live, I say. Anyway, I'm pretty sure the place was open all hours, if you get my meaning. Still is, as far as I know. You could do worse than try there."

Chapter Text

Navigators’ Cut runs parallel to the canal, one of those streets found in every city where the light seems to have wandered in at some point in the 1950s and never found its way out again. A dingy street of terraced brick cottages which seem to resist gentrification, a shuttered scrap yard and a long-closed corner shop with DAIRY painted across the window in faded blue letters.

The Bricklayers' Arms, a low pebble-dashed building with opaque wired glass in the windows, was indeed once well known to the police, but not perhaps for the reason Conn might believe.

In 1979 the Brickies was what passed, on certain nights, for one of Oxford’s gay bars.  Not the Oxford of gowns and port and braying students in wingtip collars, but the city of car workers and quarry men, car dealers and builders.

It had been run back then by Bernie, thickset and straight as a die, and his venomous wife Lil, who hated all men only slightly less than she loathed all women.

As a result the only other women you ever saw in the Brickies were the strippers who worked five to nine, for the shift workers, and the drag acts who lip-synced to Shirley Bassey and kept the tills ringing from ten to midnight and beyond.

That combination, marinated in beer, smoke and testosterone, had become a staging post for the boys of Cowley nick, venue for male-bonding, late-night lock-ins and stag parties, where, cops rubbed sheepskin clad shoulders with the very men they kicked senseless for cottaging in Oxford's public lavatories.

Robbie had been bemused to see the response of his peers to the club’s entertainment. Drag queens were greeted with enthusiasm and applause, drunken kisses were blown, feather boas appropriated, in a strident parody of courtship.

Yet in the presence of the strippers they could only watch in slack-jawed silence, glazed eyes trained on the last strip of sequined nylon, anticipating the awe-filled moment of revelation.

"Good god, man," he longed to say, "Yes, it's a fanny. What else did you think she might have in there - a koala?"

But he never did. He just supped his beer, and smiled and nodded at bellowed conversations he could barely hear, and felt nothing but a huge relief on the night Val put her foot down and the baby in his arms and announced that he was staying in and she was to evening class, and he realised he need never set foot in the god-awful place again.

And now he's back, flashing his warrant card at the door, looking for a long blonde needle in a city sized haystack. A needle who in all probability is already back at St Anthony's, and sitting down to whatever it is that clerical types have for lunch.

With a sudden qualm he recalls the bag, left with his note. Call me.. It's all  wrong. It gives too much away. James will open that bag and he'll know. He'll know I looked - he'll know I noticed.

It's quiet, just a couple of locals killing time with a beer. Nothing much has changed – same, dank patterned carpet, scarred wooden stage, porridge coloured walls, the same dark maze of cubicles and banquettes. No smoke, of course, but still resolutely brown as if lacquered in tar.

And who would have thought it, that must be Lil herself, sipping gin on a stool beside the bar, 80 if she's a day, mouth a painted cat's arse of disapproval, half the size she’d been, and she'd barely reached his shoulder then.  But it's not Bernie who pulls him a pint of over-chilled Tetley's.

There's a small knot of punters in the far corner, gathered around a table. Robbie moves towards them. The tension holding their attention breaks, they cheer and shift, and, as they do, Robbie sees him.

James, hunched over playing chess against an old man in a cable-knit cardigan.

He's focused on the board, and apparently doesn't see Robbie approach. His eyes are sunken - he hasn't slept in what, two nights now? Does he fear bad dreams too?

He's the stuff of respectable citizens' nightmares himself, unshaven, in ill-fitting clothes, one eye blackened, lip swollen. It seems to have affected his game - he looks distracted, puzzled, his hand hovers over the pieces, chooses one, replaces it unplayed.  The spectators murmur suggestions, commiserations, "Never mind, lad," and "Got you a bit bottled up there, hasn't he," and "No shame in it, you tried your best."

Then James drops the act, moves his queen, takes a knight and says, quietly "Mate in four.” The spectators groan and clap, and start to pay up on the wagers they made.

"How did you find me," James asks, without looking up.

"You might not have noticed, but I am a bit of a detective," he says. “I can still manage a bit of house-to- house without you holding my hand."

The bloke in the cardigan folds up his board and slides out of the banquette to let Robbie in.  Bushmills, was it?" he asks, and James nods. His companions drift off towards the bar with him, and Robbie and James are alone.

"You don't usually drink whiskey?"

"I do when I'm among friends. The beer in here is vile."

"Always was."

James looks at him then, his pupils dark and blown. The defeated chess player returns with a double, and places it on the table in between them. "Well played!" He lingers for a moment, waiting for a reply, but neither man looks at him, so he sighs and moves away, the board and box still tucked under his arm.

James downs the glass in one. There's a small collection of tumblers on the table, a crumpled pack of Marlborough Lights and a neat stack of fifty p coins.

"Are you hustling, Inspector Hathaway?”

"No law against it, Inspector Lewis. Gambling Act 2005 Schedule 12: Sections 279 & 280: Exempt gaming for small stakes on licensed premises." James smiles into his empty glass. "Chess paid for most of my student vices." His fingers stray to the crumpled cigarette pack, turning it over and over. Robbie's heart aches at the familiar gesture; James clutching at a talisman of adult life that only traps him forever as the kid behind the bike shed, trying to look like a man..

"James, we need to talk."

James crushes the cardboard. "In that case -” his eyes flick over the pile of change, calculating. "- can you lend me £1.25? I've a feeling I'm going to need a full pack."

Robbie opens his wallet and pulls out a twenty. "On me."

"God. It must be bad if you're offering to sub my coffin nails."

Chapter Text

There's a chill little breeze playing with the litter at their feet, but Robbie is sure that’s not the reason James's hands are shaking as he tries, and fails, to light up.

"I was at St Anthony's."

James flicks a spent match away. "And?"

"Your friend, Waite; doesn't look as if he has much longer."

"Well, obviously." James’s calm is belied by the rattle of the box in his hand. Another match gutters and dies in his fingers. He throws it down, rubs his face, scratches at the pale half-beard starting to form on his chin.

"Christ, James, what are you doing to yourself? You look bloody terrible."

"So sorry to disappoint you, sir."

Robbie aches to snatch the box from him, do the thing properly. Cup the flame against the wind, draw James down into his hands to take it, hear paper and leaf hiss into fire... "Away, man, it's nothing a wash and good kip won't fix.

James laughs. "No hot water. No, maybe you're right. A cold shower should fix everything, right?” Third attempt successful, James draws deeply, squeezing his eyes shut “Bracing."

"I've got hot water. And a bed. Look, if it’s space you want, I can move out for a bit, move in with Laura. Here - take the keys." James barely glances at the keys in Robbie's hand, then stares back at the gutter at his feet. "James – I know how tough this must be. I understand.”

"With all due respect, you don't. You're not the one with SOCO scraping DNA off the Kleenex in your bin.”

"I know. James, just look at me. I'm not here on the job…”

"Really? How nice for you. How do you get to switch it off?"

But I don't, do I - and you know it. I'm standing here, looking at you, trying to work out how a man left your flat, full of your wine and full of your coffee and, apparently, full of your sleeping pills, and is found hours later stone dead, and wrapped in a shower curtain.

"James, man, if you won't talk to me, how can I help you?"

“You can't help. This is something you can't fix. You, of all people. No. Don't touch me." James almost stumbles into the road in his anxiety to back away. “You’ll never understand what it’s been like - in here, all these years.” He taps his temples furiously, as if to force the thoughts and words safely back into his skull, back into the darkness. "In this bloody stupid head of mine, second guessing every impulse, every thought, every gesture, hating what you want, loathing yourself for wanting it, stepping so carefully in case you let something slip, something get away from you."

"Christ, you’re not making sense. This is what it's all about? You being gay? So what? You think after all this time that bothers me? You're not the first copper with a secret, and you won't be the last, not by a long chalk. It doesn't make you special, or worse or better than anyone else."

"You have no idea. Go on - tell me how easy my life is, I dare you. What could possibly go wrong. I mean, it’s all legal now, all respectable, isn’t it? I could even invite the Chief Super to my wedding. Totally wipes out 30 years of crouching in the dark, begging God, someone, anyone to take it away, all of it, before it slips out, and someone gets hurt.

"It must all seem so strange to you.  How could you understand?  Everything you've ever wanted lines up so perfectly with what the world expects. You don’t even have to pretend to be happy.  Bet you got gold stars at school for colouring inside the lines.  Boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy loses girl...“

Robbie's face flares with a sudden incandescent heat, at a blow which stings all the more for its complete surprise.   

James knows at once what he has done.  He’s pale with horror, "Shit, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that. That’s not what I meant.”

James folds, the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes, to block out the world.

"So.  Tell me what you meant.” 

A woman walking her dog towards the canal glances across at them - an old man in a suit and tie scrapping in the street with a lad half his age in sagging sportswear and bruises - draws her own conclusions and quickens her step.

“I can’t,” James’s hands fall away; his eyes are huge, and dark, and spilling with cold tears.   He looks as exhausted as Robbie now feels. “At least now you know just how disgusting really I am.”

Robbie wants to feel rage, or disgust, but all that fills his mouth is a kind of acid misery. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing. Please.  Go home. There is nothing you can do now that won't make this worse." He turns to walk away, head down, hands thrust deep into coat pockets.

"You're right." Robbie calls after him. "I don't understand."

James turns back, in the middle of the road, in a kind of squared off, miserable triumph to accept Robbie's scorn. But all Robbie can see is grief. For Dunn? For Waite? For some other unknown, unnamed love? He has no idea.

"Colouring inside the lines? Good god, man - I'm not the one around here drawing up lines that can't be crossed. That's all I hear these days, ‘what’s your type?’ Dividing us up.  Men, women, gay, straight, young, old, hair colour, eye colour, weight; like a menu in a coffee shop, or, or that god-forsaken leisure park – all looks like freedom and choice, but it's empty, everyone looking at the fancy packet, never what’s inside."

The phone in his breast pocket is throbbing, but Robbie is barely aware of it over the empty pounding of his heart.

"But then, what would I know, eh? Dull, boring old Robert Lewis, slept with just one person his whole life. But that's the point. I fell in love with a person. Not a girl. Not a number, not a type, not a selection of chromosomes, the right sort of plumbing. A person. She was whole, and unique, and I loved every bit of her, whatever and whoever she was.”

James is still staring at him, stock still in the unlovely, lonely street, his face rigid and unreadable, eyes dark and intent. His mouth opens. "Are you going to answer that?"

"What - ?"

"Your phone. That's a Shout."

Robbie blinks. The insistent ringtone throbbing against his ribs finally registers, the programmed tone reserved for Command and Despatch. For call-outs.

 "Wait there," he calls as he fumbles in his jacket, but too late. James is already walking away, away from the canal, away from the Bricklayers, away from him.

"Inspector?", De Souza's voice, tight and urgent, "I'm at Dunn's place. Get here, fast. Blues and twos." James's long legs have already carried him past the scrap yard. "Debbie's gone out on the ledge, and refuses to talk to anyone but you.”

Chapter Text

"She seemed okay. Exhausted herself crying last night, but calm enough. Just said she wanted a bath. I thought it was a good sign.” Sergeant De Souza is trying very hard not to sound defensive.

Robbie can hear water running in the bathroom at the top of the stairs of the tiny house.

"Next thing I know, she's throwing stuff, breaking glass, screaming, and she won't come out. Won't talk to me or McGuire here. Just kept asking for you."

The small, bare, pebble-dashed house is uncomfortably full, even with the door wide open. Robbie, De Souza, two paramedics with bulky packs and radios crackling, McGuire and Williams from Family Liaison team and DCI Siobhan Maitland, struggling to speak into her phone over the babble of voices and static.

"When you called me, you said she was suicidal?"

"She said she wanted it to stop."

Upstairs Debbie Dunn wails.

Robbie knows that sound, deep and animal and ripped out of the strongest muscles in the human body. Does Debbie understand what is happening to her, he wonders, or has she simply added this latest torment to the storm of grief and misery which has descended on her in the last 24 hours?

“Just ‘it’?”

“Everything.”

"What's she got in there? Pills, razors? Did you check?”

“Of course I bloody checked.”

"We both did, sir." That's McGuire. As hard-headed as she is pretty. "Standard search. The bathroom was clean - the whole house."

Another scream and the sound of falling, shattering glass.

"Well, it sounds as if she's found an alternative to razors. Just break the bloody door down and get her out of there, man!

The paramedic shakes his head. "She's sat right against the glass panel, mate. Can't guarantee she won't get hurt if we go in. If you could just get her to shift up a bit, away from the door…"

Siobhan Maitland snaps her phone off and turns to Robbie for the first time. "Psychologist is still forty-five minutes away. She won't respond to any of us, she asked for you. Can you keep her talking?"

"I can try." At least this one can't run away from him.

“Sir." Frankie De Souza, pulling him to one side. "The house was easy to search. Too easy - not just the bathroom. There was nothing here. I mean, stripped. No food, not even milk. Williams had to charge the electric meter before we could even make a brew. Looks like stuff's been sold. Space on the shelves, that sort of thing. And this - " She thrusts a letter at him.

Distress leaps out from the sea of boilerplate text: Arrears. Eviction. Officer of the Court. Removal of goods. So much for Mickey Dunn’s business plans.

The bathroom is at the far end of a narrow landing.

“Mrs Dunn?” He can see her outlined against the frosted glass, curled up into a knot of misery. “Debbie?" He crouches low, so he need not raise his voice. "It's me. Inspector Lewis. Remember? Robbie. You wanted to tell me something."

He can feel rather than hear the sobbing on the other side of the cracked glass. She's panting. Like a cat, crawling into a cupboard to give birth alone. He has no idea what he will say or do, but then he never does.

"You all right, lass? You've got everyone here worried about you."

"Make them go away.”

"It's just me, Debbie." There’s a creak on the staircase behind him. Irritated, he turns to wave the paramedic back down and out of sight.

The girl sobs again, then hisses, and curls even further around her swollen belly. “Dad. I want my Dad."

Robbie can almost hear the fat tears dropping from the girl's chin as her shoulders convulse.

He’d listened only minutes earlier to Maitland update; Debbie’s parents still untraced, the electoral roll leading Uniform to a flat a mile away, locked and dark. Calls going straight to an old-style answering machine, and a neighbour who only said that the couple were respectable; kept themselves to themselves and that maybe he’d heard they had a caravan, somewhere in Wales. Or Bournemouth. Or Cromer.

"Okay, Debbie. You just hang on there. You're going to be okay."

"You can't know that," she wails.

"I do, though - 'cos I'm a dad, remember? We’ve seen it all - we know when thing are going work out in the end.”

"My Dad never wants to see me again. He told me."

"Oh Pet. Dads say all sorts of stupid stuff. All the time.” He leans in as close as he dares to the cracked pane. “I've said stuff when I'm angry or upset or tired, and wished it was right back in me big mouth as soon as it’s out."

There's an odd smell in the air leaking under the door. Chemical. Metallic. Oily. Familiar, half forgotten, that hits you in the back of the throat and stays there for hours afterwards.

“Whatever’s wrong, it’s nothing we can't sort out, Debbie. You and me. Why don’t you let me in, and tell me all about it."

"No! No! No!" She scrambles back against the door frame, panting hard. "No one can see. No one."

"Shhh, Pet, shhh, it's okay. There’s no one here but me, honest, and I’ve seen all sorts. Look – why don’t you unbolt the door, and let me in - I'll lock the door again right behind me. Just you and me. I promise.”

The cracked glass in the door creaks alarmingly. "Good girl. Just reach up and slide the bolt. Can you do that?” He can hear the girl panting, can see her hand outlined against the glass, reaching, scrabbling at the lock. “Careful now - that’s it. Now shuffle back.”

Over his shoulder he can see Siobhan Maitland, standing in the crook of the staircase, waiting, watching. She nods, once, and he steps over Debbie Dunn’s drawn up legs to squeeze through the gap and slips the bolt back into place.

Even in the first few seconds, and in the half-light cast through the torn blind, Robbie can see the bathroom is a wreck.

His shoes crunch on broken glass, the bath panel is in splinters, the floor is awash with debris, torn paper and splintered plastic, while water spills from the edge of a the tub onto jumble of bottles, plastic trays and drifts of sodden paper, torn from their hiding place underneath.

It's this, the sheets of paper afloat and underfoot, that brings the strange chemical scent sharply into focus in Robbie’s memory. It is the smell of his youth, of the days and night working Vice, of basement darkrooms where the pornographers of Newcastle printed smut in a distant pre-digital past.

He feels something underfoot, lifts his sole, and James Hathaway, painted in light and shadow, looks back at him.

"That's Jamie,” Debbie sprawls against the door frame in her bathrobe, bare legs drawn up under her, dank, panting. “I told you about him. I knew Mickey was hiding something up here, under the bath, in here night after night when he thought I was sleeping.”

Robbie crouches beside her, relieved to see that she seems unharmed. “He went on and on about him – Jamie, his fancy clothes, his fancy flat, job and what a hypocrite he was. When I asked him what that meant, he shouted at me.” She screws up her face in misery, “It’s all just shouting. We had no money, and the electric went out, and he’d taken the money from my purse to buy stuff. I said terrible things to him, horrible things, and all he said was I should have more faith, he’d make it all right again…”

"Come on, lass." He gently strokes a damp rat-tail of hair from her swollen face.

“…he just left, and it’s my fault. If I’d had faith he’d still be here…” her voice rising in a wail of pain and panic “… and now I’m dying too!”

"Debbie. Listen to me. You’re not dying. It’s just your baby, that's all."

"Make it stop," she pants.

“Shhh - It'll pass." He squeezes her hand. "It always does. Now, let's get you a bit more comfortable, eh?”

“It can’t come now. Mickey was supposed to be here, to look after us”

“Come on – up you get," With some difficulty he helps the girl to her feet, and supports her as he snags a towel from the rail to fold under her as he eases her down onto the toilet seat. “Nothing to worry about. I’ve seen babies arrive before now.”

His count is three; two of his own, Val clinging to his hand and swearing like a docker, and one in a snowbound layby between Blaydon and Prudhoe, when he was six weeks into uniform and as green as a cabbage. Blue light flashing over rutted snow and Christmas songs on the radio. Somewhere in Blaydon today there is a thirty-five year old woman called Carol Louisa Bobbie Robson - and he ever meets her he will owe her a heartfelt apology for his part in her name.

Now he desperately hopes he won’t have to deliver Debbie’s child here in this narrow space between bath and door, littered with the wreckage of Mickey Dunn's plans and dreams.

He hitches up his trousers and crouches down beside the girl.

"Your lovely suit..." she protests, and to be honest he dreads to think what Mr Khan will say when he brings these in next week.

"Don’t you worry about that, lass. You just sit here a moment, nice and quiet." He slides an arm around her, and she settles a little closer to him, hot with an excess of life. "You gave poor Frankie a real fright just now."

She pushes the damp wad of paper into his hand. The emulsion is lifting in mottled patches, but Robbie can see past them, as if through pond ice, to an unbearably familiar profile.

"What was Mickey doing, hiding all this away, when I needed him? All I wanted was to make him happy, and I never could.”

Happy, thinks Robbie, and looks at the sun-gleaming head bowed over his guitar, hands caressing neck and strings, lips curved in a rare and precious smile. Just a boy, alone on a crumpled sheet. Happy.

“I loved him – why couldn’t I understand what he needed.”

“Oh, lass. I’ve been around years, and I still don’t really understand what makes folk tick. You can spend years with a person, day in, day out, and they'll still surprise you. One day, they do or say something, out of the blue, and it’s like you're staring at a stranger.” He glances again at the smiling stranger in the photograph. A mouth he knows so well, curved in a smile he has never seen before.

“How can you ever trust anyone, if you can never be sure you know them?”

You trust the things you know about them.Robbie holds her just a little closer. “Like, I never got to meet your Mickey, but I know something really important about him.”

Debbie stares at him with wide damp eyes.

“Last thing Mickey did, the very last, was try to find the money you needed, for you and the baby. Whatever else happened, however wrong it went, what he wanted was for both of you to be safe and warm and looked after.

"You know the biggest surprise of them all? Most folk are just deep down, kind. “ He remembers the man in the photograph in his hand, turning up unbidden every December 19th, accompanying him to the quiet acre of earth and grass and engraved granite slabs where he had buried his own hopes for the future, and just standing, wordless, waiting, watching. Fiercely, apologetically gentle.

"Downstairs, right now, there are people who’ve not met you, but all they want is to look after you, keep you safe. I know it’s not easy, and you’ll hate them for it, but you have to be brave enough to do what Mickey wanted, and let them care for you. Can you do that?”

The silence stretches out around them, two strangers sharing a fleeting eddy in the great rivers pulling their lives on and out of shape. Then she squeezes his hand back, nods, and Robbie opens the door to let the rivers carry them apart again.

Robbie holds Debbie Dunn’s clammy twisting fingers as she answers the paramedics’ questions, as she is strapped into evacuation chair, as she if lifted into the waiting ambulance.

But as the doors close he steps back, and feels once again the quiet internal uncoupling of responsibility which has kept him whole and sane for the past forty years, as he turns his full attention to the bundle of sticky paper clutched in his left hand throughout.

Five photographs. Portrait of a Young Man. Alone, on a crumpled sheet on a day of bright sun that set ten years ago. Naked. James Hathaway. Familiar in every regard, but utterly unknown to him, revealed in landscapes of shadow and skin, like an unexplored country glimpsed from the window of an aeroplane.

Until a few hours ago Robbie would have sworn he knew this man. Now he realises he knows nothing, and must start again.

Look at the evidence. “He watches well who notes well what he sees.” Look.

The stranger in his hand is young - younger than his 25 years, as if the estrangement from God had been a sort of rebirth, as if it had freed him to sit like this, at home in his skin for the first time since childhood. What did it mean, this offering of skin and flesh in place of bread and wine?

And if James - the James he thought he knew - has rebuttoned and withdrawn from the light since, why?

Perhaps, he realised, the ultimate mystery of James Hathaway was not what he was repressing under those layers of cotton, silk and wool – who doesn’t have secrets and fears they bury from the sunlight – but rather, what James would be if the weight of that armour were ever to be removed.

Because this is what is shocking to him. Not the flesh but the smile.

He has never seen James this happy before.

He is beginning to understand why these images devastated Debbie. Each frames her husband's discontent and desire.

Not for the segment of tender flesh at the juncture of arm and torso, the indented chest, sharply jutting hip, or for the shadowed cock, curled heavy against the thigh.

Robbie knows pornography – it was his business once. Over the years he’s seen every variety of desire, human and inhuman, framed in paper and film, And for all their intimacy and honesty, these five portraits are as cool and chaste any of the marble limbs and torsos he and Laura wandered among last week in the cloisters of Florence.

It’s not the body the photographer covets. It’s joy. James’s joy, whatever, whoever its source, is self-contained, escaping from him like the light of a shaded lamp.

I think he just wanted a little bit of what he missed, Maureen had said.

Mickey Dunn, looking through a lens over a garden fence, where the grass is always greener …

Tormented not by Lust, but Envy.

And that leaves Robbie with another problem. Because, just as there is no sex in theses shots, there is no motive for blackmail. No motive for murder.

He has to trust the fragile scraps to Siobhan Maitland, and hope that she can see them, and understand them, as he does.

 

Photographs

Chapter Text

In the end, it's not Maitland Robbie has to convince, but someone closer and dearer to him – and much, much more terrifying.

The Blackbird Leys may not be the hellish sinkhole it was paintedin the headlines of the ‘80s and ‘90s, but it is still not an overly gentle or genteel place. Men in football colours, women wrapped in dressing gowns, smoke and hooped jewellery, children circling on bicycles, holding mobile phones aloft to broadcast the unfolding drama. Time was, Robbie recalls, the papers would pick up the scent of a story on semi-legal radio scanners. Now all they have to do is flip through twitter between lattes to see the news unfold in real time.

He recognises many among these loudly curious neighbours. They havefaces and names he has known from their childhoods, or the infancy of parents and grandparents. Short generations of families with a long and complicated relationship with the law. Victims, offenders, informers, with the turn of each year.

They are not easily impressed or intimidated, but even they move aside at the arrival of Jean Innocent, in her official car, her sharpest suit and what Hathaway once dubbed ‘The Earrings of Shock and Awe'.

“Lewis! What the hell are you doing here!? I ordered you to keep your nose out of this case.”

“Ma'am, I...” But before Robbie can muster a defence, Maitland has stepped ahead of him into the line of fire.

“Inspector Lewis is here at my request, Ma'am. His presence and quick thinking almost certainly prevented a further tragedy this afternoon.”

Innocent is barely mollified. “That does not explain what he was doing at seven this morning, breaking into an unreleased crime scene, against my express orders.”

Lewis catches Maitland's eye, but she shakes her head.

“Don't look at her, Lewis.” Innocent sighs, and pinches the pad of flesh between her eyebrows. “You weren’t snitched, you were spotted by the press. I've just spent a hair-raising twenty minutes persuading the Mail on Sunday not to make you the pin-up of tomorrow's page five. As you know, our tabloids just love a bank holiday murder. What on earth were you doing there anyway?”

“Just looking out for my partner,” he tries, conviction is leaking away from his voice. This is the version of Innocent which unnerves him most, aggravating, attractive, almost invariably in the right.

“Your ex-partner. Inspector Hathaway is a grown-up now. He at least seems to understand the minefield we are negotiating. And you – you of all people – are the one setting off the explosions. Oh, for the love...” The last is in response to the arrival of Ben Black, crime reporter of the Oxford Mail, in a familiar Ford Focus. “There’s no bloody escaping them. My car. Now,” she hisses. “Both of you.”

Innocent's driver loiters on the grass a few paces away, as Robbie and Maitland, shielded behind the Volvo’s tinted glass, lay out the events of the last few hours, from the Widow Dunn's melt-down to the discovery of Dunn's secret photographic stash.

“Hidden in a folder behind the bath panel,” Robbie explains as he finally surrenders the pictures.

“These are definitely of DI Hathaway?” Maitland leafs through the pile with intense, professional interest. “I don't know him, of course,” she passes the curled sheets across the console to Innocent, “but - would you say they were credible blackmail material?”

Robbie sees the spot of pink, high on Jean's cheek, as she realises what she is studying.

“Inspector Hathaway has always struck me as a deeply private person, but, well… surely this is no worse than you’d see in aftershave advertisement. Or those tasteful studio portraits buy for their partners at Christmas – you know the sort of thing? Lewis?”

“Err, I never, really – not, um. Ma'am.” It’s Robbie’s turn to feel his face warm, as he tries very hard not to imagine Mr Innocent opening his Christmas present, and fails. “And,” he continues, “that would line up with Hathaway's statement – he was just modelling for a friend with an artistic hobby.”

“As far as we can tell it stayed a hobby,” Maitland adds, “until last year, when he lost his job at the school and set up as a wedding photographer.”

“When I spoke to Mrs Dunn, yesterday…”

“Lewis!”

“I was just providing a shoulder to cry on, Ma’am. Anyway, the widow said Dunn started the business with money from an elderly uncle –”

“We’re trying to trace him, without success. The girl has never met him – but, De Souza found this.” Maitland passes over a copied bank statement. “Three payments into Dunn's account in cash – eight hundred in October and November, five in early December. So, shortly after Mrs Dunn falls pregnant - “

“But before,” Robbie jumps in, “Hathaway says he met Dunn in the Covered Market handing out flyers and renewed their acquaintance.”

“So – what? Another, earlier blackmail attempt? Another victim?” Innocent glances again at the photographs in her hand. “Why would that victim run dry in December, and force Dunn to make this clumsy pass at Hathaway? Did they run out of cash? Or find a backbone?”

Or fall sick, Robbie thinks. ‘He is protecting me’, that’s what the priest had said. From what, old man? What secret have you shared with James and Dunn?

“The scrap of photograph in Dunn’s hand when he died, have we had any joyidentifying that?” Innocent hands the papers back to Maitland. “Find the photo, find the pressure. Find the pressure, find the victim, and find the victim…”

“If it’s a photo, it’s probably in the house. We’ll find it. I’ll take the house apart.”

And Maitland is gone, leaving Robbie and Jean alone together, side by side in the rear seats, like anxious parents on a sofa.

“How is he?” she asks, staring at her own folded hand.

“Ma’am.”

“Oh, don’t even try. I know you both too well. Nothing seems to keep you two apart for long. So, how’s James doing?”

“Not good.” Robbie swallows the sudden taste of bile and anger flooding his mouth. “He’s not himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“He – well, had a bit of go at me.”

“James attacked you!?”

“No! Not attack. Not really. Just – I think I may have hit a raw nerve, and it set him off.”

“Robbie. You know you can't be involved in this. You are one of the best officers I know: smart, tough, loyal, infuriating – and you seem determined to make the whole bloody mess worse than it already is. Turning over crime scenes, removing evidence, chatting to material witnesses. Have you lost your senses? Can you imagine anything more likely to suggest a police cover-up where none actually exists? And then to get caught by the bloody press doing it! Take a look…”

She hauls out her phone and scrolls through. Yes. There he is, looking left and right before breaking the tape on James’s door. Remarkably shifty, he thinks, every inch a man burdened with a guilty conscience. Had he been followed since? He wonders if there are other shots of him, browsing for underpants in Austin Reed, showing up at St Anthony’s bearing gifts – or arguing in the street with a man in borrowed clothes, a split lip and a ragged two-day beard?

“Ignore them. Those bastards have been making it up as long as I've known them. It's all a comedy to them. Keystone Kops. They spot a cop drinking wine – then he’s Lord Snooty, a clueless ponce. A bloke like me – well, then they’ll make me the dumb one, couldn't detect his arse in his own trousers. They see what they want to see, write what they want to write!”

“They should have no reason to see you at all!”

“And what would suspending me prove to your bloody press, except that you don't trust your own officers?”

“Robbie, I trust you with my life! Just not with managing your own. You know better than this. It looks like collusion, and you know better than most how dangerous that is right now. The media hardly need any more evidence of police corruption. They have it, by the stinking skip load. Jack Cornish's little venture fades into insignificance after the last year. When Morton rang me the night before the Bullfinch arrests, and told me what he’d found. God, heartbreaking isn’t the word. We abandoned those children to years of abuse.1 Hillsborough, Tomlinson, the Lawrence Family.2 It goes on and on, week after week, shaming us all. These aren’t Keystone comedies – they’re bloody disasters, with one thing in common. Police officers, just like us, lying, destroying evidence, forging statements, protecting ourselves and trampling the very people who need our protection most. Why should anyone trust us now?”

“That’s got nothing to do with you or me! Christ, Jean – that’s everything I’ve fought against. All my career! You know that. And James? Of all people – James?”

“I know.” Innocent sighs.

In the yellowed gloom cast by the Volvo’s tinted windows, she seems haggard, as tired as he feels.

Funny, how Robbie's always thought of her as younger, but in truth there's barely eight years between them, and she was an inspector long before him.

“We won. That's the problem,” she says. “Our generation. The good guys. We fought to bury that world, deals in smoke-filled pubs and Masonic lodges, all that cosying up to power, and looking after our own. This isn’t the Sweeney anymore; it’s supposed to be a new world of clean, independent, accountable policing. We won, Robbie, and now we're on our own.

“We don’t even have the government on our side, thanks to those idiots who thought they could blackmail the Home Secretary over one foul-mouthed Chief Whip.3. After Plebgate we’ll be lucky if the Tories don’t flog off the whole police service to Securicor or G4S, or whatever they’re called these days. It’s not just James’s career we’re trying to save - it’s all the whole deal, the job, your bloody pension - and the safety of all those...” She taps gently on the glass separating them from the kids on bikes, the teenage dads, the grandmas, the good, the bad, the indifferent citizens of Oxford.

“So, what? We just turn on each other instead?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it – but if we put one foot wrong, under this level of scrutiny, we’ll introduce enough doubt to lose the case, and James’s name and career will be toast with it. Gone. James understands what is at stake. He knows why he has to keep his head down right now and let us handle this.”

Robbie thinks of a pale, dishevelled figure, red raw with distress, in a coat at once too wide and too short, spitting fury at him. Yes, James understands only too well.

They both sense the stir in the doorway of the Dunn house, the sudden intense interest quickening the rhythm of routine secure and search.

“It has to be by the book now, Robbie. Squeaky clean. James has to be treated like any other suspect until this is over.” They watch DC Hooper, suited and booted in Tyvek, emerging into the daylight with purposeful tread. “Go home. Have an early night. Relax.”

“How can I?” he replies, his eye on the object Hooper holds aloft—small, soft, gleaming within the evidence bag.

“Those photographs – of James. That's not blackmail material.”

“No,” he agrees.

“And even a rank amateur like Dunn would know that.”

“Yes.”

“Which means Dunn believed he had something – or someone – else to burn James with.”

“Yes.”

“If we find it - whatever it is – we will deal with it. Properly. I promise. We'll get through this, by following the rules.” Hooper is walking towards the car now, oblivious of the cameras, the thing in his gloved hand, hanging obscenely.

“I understand,” he says. And he does.

“Robbie. Just tell me – please. Is there anything else you know that could help?”

‘He is protecting me’, the old man said. But who is protecting you, James?

“St Anthony’s House. It’s where Dunn and Hathaway met, ten years back. Whatever it is, it probably happened there. I think it’s still happening there.”

“And that’s where he’s staying now?” Innocent squeezes her eyes shut, pinches the bridge of her nose. “And I hoped James was the sane one. Listen to me. You are going to disappear. You are on leave, as of this moment. If I find you within book throwing distance of any of the crime scenes, or the suspects, or the investigating officers, or St Whatever’s bloody house, I will have you both suspended. Lewis. Do you hear me?”

“I hear you.”

Innocent stabs a button at her side, and the window descends to reveal Hooper's broad flat face and the bulging sack of knotted latex, trapped in the bag like a goldfish won at the fair. A condom. Pack of three, one missing. Missing no longer.

“Taped to the top of the cistern, Ma'am. Looks like there's a container inside. One of those old-fashioned film cans.”

A drop of water falls and drips on the sill.

“So get it to forensics, Hooper. Now!” The tinted glass whines upward again, and the car fills with cool, quiet gloom like rising water.

“Go home to Laura, Robbie. Please. For all our sakes.”

 

 

Footnotes

[Warning; The links below lead to articles covering potentially distressing events, including lethal police violence, crowd crushing resulting in death and injury and the abuse of children.]

 

1 Operation Bullfinch: Thames Valley has been heavily criticised in a Serious Case Review into the sexual exploitation of young girls in Oxford, 2005-2013, which found police had been aware of the abuse of girls, which was finally exposed in its Operation Bullfinch, but failed to pursue investigations or even record it as a crime:

2Hillsborough Disaster: The impact of the 2012 report by the Hillsborough Independent Panel into, 25 years after the event, is devastating. The three findings which have most relevance to the conduct of the police can be summarised as follows. 1) The fatal crush at the Hillsborough Stadium was primarily caused by “lack of police control”; 2.) .that “up to 41” of the 96 who perished might have survived had the emergency services' reactions and co-ordination been improved, and that 3) South Yorkshire Police attempted to divert attention from the failing of their own officers and throw blame onto the victims by altering 164 witness statements, performing blood alcohol tests on the victims, some of them children, and running computer checks on the national police database in an attempt to “impugn their reputation”, and passing inaccurate and untrue information to the press via the then Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick.

Ian Tomlinson a newspaper seller died while making his way home through a political demonstration in the city of London. The first Police statements reported that Tomlinson had collapsed and been given first aid by police officers, an account supported by the autopsy result, which suggested a sudden heart attack. A week later mobile phone footage emerged which clearly showed that Tomlinson had been subjected to an unprovoked attack by a police officer, and that the pathologist had failed to record the brusing to Tomlinson’s head and body, and had destroyed blood and fluid samples.

3Plebgate: In 2012 Conservation MP and Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell swore at a Police Officer on duty at the gates to 10 Downing Street, the home of the Prime Minister, and was forced to resign as result.

This event was misused by senior members of the Police Federation, (the police union) to apply pressure to the Home Secretary in the midst of a dispute over pay, pensions and conditions. As a result five police officers have, to date, been dismissed from the service, and one convicted of misconduct and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment.

Innocent is right to be concerned about the fallout: in May 2014, less than a month after this conversation with DI Lewis, the Home Secretary addressed the Police Federation, demanded that it address serious concerns over Police integrity and honesty, and abruptly ending its public funding.

Chapter Text

Later, Robbie will find he has no idea how long he drove that Saturday afternoon, and only fleeting impressions of where, but by the time he parks on the fringes of the sprawling car park surrounding Fry's Hill Leisure Park, the day’s light is failing.

Somewhere out there, in the twilight, is the dip in the earth which cradled Mickey Dunn, resting along with the litter of Oxford’s fleeting life, the fag-ends, fast food boxes, screwed up flyers and chocolate wrappers.

There are grease-stained wrappers on Robbie’s dashboard and a queasy heaviness in his gut from the coffee he sipped as he listened to the evening news.

 

“At a press conference earlier this afternoon, Chief Superintendent Jean Innocent of Oxford Police addressed concerns about public safety at Fry's Hill since the discovery of a body there in the early hours of Friday morning.

"The death of Michael Dunn is being treated as a murder enquiry. I would like to stress at this point that we have no evidence that Mr Dunn was attacked at the Fry's Park site, or that his death is linked to the on-going controversy over use of the car park by some groups within the community.

"Mr Dunn's family deserve to know how and why their loved one died, whatever the circumstances, and I urge anyone who may know of his movements in the hours and days before his death to come forward, in complete confidence.”

Earlier today an ambulance attended an address on the Blackbird Leys Estate, and removed a woman, believed to be Dunn's wife, to hospital. Police teams moved to search the two-bedroom house shortly afterwards.

Another property, a flat in the Cowley Road area, identified by neighbours this evening as the home of Detective Inspector James Hathaway, remains sealed and under guard.

Superintendent Innocent refused to confirm rumours that two officers have now been removed from the investigation.

In recent months Oxford police have been at pains to restore public confidence, after the convictions in the Cornish corruption case, and severe, on-going criticism of handling of the sexual exploitation of minors over many years.”

The radio is silent, but the lights from the great retail flagships of Fry’s Hill are still stuttering out an SOS to the world: Buy. Eat. Play. Save. Save. Save.

Robbie's head is full of fragments, as it has been all afternoon, a virtual incident room plastered with pieces of reality in an attempt to glimpse a pattern, a coherent working whole through his anger and frustration and grief.

For Morse the facts of a case had always been a puzzle, clusters of letters scrawled in the margins to be manipulated neatly into place. A solution. Five down, thirteen across, fencing in the sordid misery and mess of human life.

But in all these years of work, Robbie had never been able to shake off the image of Lyn crouched on the living room carpet playing with paper dolls, dressing them from a shoebox of frocks, hats and shoes she cut from random magazines. She’d sit back, and squint at her work: tweak, adjust, tumble scraps back into the box and start again, hour after hour.

And that, he had long since realised, is all his job entailed, with its whiteboards and photographs and forensics and bits of string; cutting and folding and hanging scraps of evidence into a human form, trying to find a fit. A reasonable, rational costume for the case to wear on its big day in court. An approximation of truth, good enough to live with.

No wonder old lags call the process ‘a fit up’.

For hours nowhe has been sifting the litter of his memory, trying them on, stripping them off, throwing them back to start again. And all the time he knows he is avoiding one tough, twisted little scrap lurking at the bottom of the box. It has been waiting stubbornly for him, just as this place has been waiting patiently for his arrival at the end of his long circular journey through the Thames Valley.

This is the place where it started, two nights ago, where he watched from the shadows as James walked away from him, into the halo of white light around a dead man, and became something strange and new.

‘Sins of omission’, James had muttered, sitting beside him in this place, in this very car. A half apology for what was to come; ‘I have no secrets… my superiors knew that I had sex with men. I lied’.

The purple streaked sky has disappeared. Darkness extends above and below. Only the signs of remain. Buy Me. Play Me. Eat Me.

Out there, right now, at this moment, in the darkness all around him, strangers are meeting, coupling, losing themselves in a few moments of sightless, anonymous friction.

How would it feel, he wonders. A blind exchange of heat, scent, a slide of skin, a handful of hair, a mouthful of flesh, without weight, without meaning, without personality, without a past or future. Is that its sole appeal?

James is not weightless. Robbie knows to a scruple the heft of his body against him, slumping into sleep after pizza and beer and long hours at work.

He knows the warmth of James's breath, damp on his neck, the precise scent of sweat, smoke, salt, hops, petrol, sometimes grass and once, as James’s eye twitched at a dream world, the sharp, lactic tang of desire.

He knows the exact imprint of skin on skin, the silky rasp of close-cropped hair, the still, silent content stealing through him as James’s body falls across his on the shared sofa.

All Dunn's photographs have supplied to his imagination is detail; violet shadows under arms, chest, belly, thighs; a glistening trail of hair leading the eye downward.

There must be a storm brewing, thunder, somewhere. His skin is tingling.

Every breath seems hard won, as through water. There is furious pain in his chest, a gripping anger, so very like grief, a sense of the ground slipping away from him. He is in free-fall, tumbling, no longer sure if the darkness above him is earth or sky.

His hands clutch, convulsively, holding fast to reality. Something tears, beneath his fingers.

He has broken through something. Fragile. In his left pocket. A shell of rustling tissue-paper and ribbon. His forgotten gift, a sea-green tie. Coils of cool darkness, opening to his clumsy fingers, yielding, sliding over skin.

The scrap of knowledge Robbie has been skirting all these hours is now ready, hammering at his chest for release, illuminating dim corners in the vault of his skull, just within his grasp...

Suddenly blind, in pain, Robbie flings up his hand, cringes from the white light flooding the car.

A gloved hand raps on the window.

"Oi! Hands on the dashboard where I can see them!"

There’s two of them, in the familiar silhouette of flat caps and stab-proof vest. A crackle of radio. And then an even more familiar voice: "You plonker, Stebbins. That’s the boss. Evening, Sir.”

"Jonesie?" Robbie blinks at the orange afterimage the torch has branded across his sight. His face is burning, although he has done nothing more incriminating than tangle his fist into a knot of silk and paper.

"Say hello to Inspector Lewis, Stebbins. Good lad. Now ‘op it and let the grown-ups talk. He’s a probationer, from Banbury. We've got six teams out here. Just canvassing the area, warning folk, checking if the regulars saw ought unusual last Thursday."

Robbie can see them both now, the reassuring bearded bulk of PC Jones, leaning companionably against the door frame, his improbably young partner hanging back sheepishly.

"Anything of interest turn up?"

"Nah. Though bloody murder hasn't put the doggers off one stroke. God above, the muck we’ve seen. And it’s not yet ten. You couldn't imagine the half of it. I think it’s turned young Stebbins's head!"

"I think you’re supposed to be enlisting the community's support, Constable, not perving on them."

Jones draws himself up. "Right you are, sir."

"Oh, ignore me, Jonesie. I'm not checking up on you. Just pulled in on the way home."

"And if you don't mind me saying, home’s where you ought to be - you look done in. Come on, lad. Let's go complete your sexual education."

And the light is gone, bobbing along the ground, between the parked cars.

Robbie wipes his face with relief. He is puzzled when his hand comes away wet.

Christ, no wonder Jones gave him such a strange look. How long has he been crying?

Will that feature in their report - or only in station gossip? So much for keeping a low profile.

Though, oddly enough, he trusts Jones to keep it to himself. The man’s been a copper enough to know that tears are, in the end, just part of the job. Happens to us all. The Universe’s way of telling you to take a weekend off with the wife and kids.

Go home to Laura. Innocent's last order.

So he does.

Chapter Text

There is golden light streaming out of the house, from the window, from the rippled glass of the door, pouring over the neglected patch of grass and gravel that Robbie calls a drive. It picks out the lines of the VW Golf parked in front of his bay window, and flickers between the blinds as Laura paces, her fair head bent over her phone.

There is a peace in this he had never thought to feel again, the simple pleasure of returning home in anticipation of warmth, lamplight and a human voice raised in welcome.

Laura is still speaking as he opens his front door.

“Oh God, Jean... it's okay. He just walked in. I'm sorry - no really, thank you for listening to me blathering on! We'll be okay now.”

He's not even dropped his keys before she has her arms around him.

We will, he thinks. Be okay.

He presses his face into the clean, sweet cloud of her hair. He can stop now, perhaps. Be warmed, for a moment, an hour, a day, the rest of his life. Held. Quiet. Freed from the compulsion to scratch endlessly through the litter in his own skull.

“Where have you been, my love? I've been at my wit's end!”

“Sssh.”

Laura's scent, clean. Pink. Expensive lotions, violets and Hibiscrub. It tickles. Sweet. Lingering. Like flowers in cellophane on a hot afternoon.

He releases her, gently, letting the cooler evening air seep between them, until she moves back an inch of her own volition.

“Where did you put it?”

“Put what?” For a moment he's lost.

“Robbie. I left an entirely illicit copy of the SOCO report for you in the car last night. Please tell me you found it. Please, please, tell me you haven't been driving around Oxford with it lying on the front seat.”

“Don't fret.” He lifts a sofa cushion. “Here.”

Laura snatches up the contraband folder. “I shouldn't have done this.” She folds it to her chest. “Even for you. Or James. Either of you.”

“No. You shouldn't.” He drops a kiss onto her forehead and his keys onto the table. “But thank you.”

“Anything useful..?”

“Maybe. I don't know.” He passes a hand over his face. “Sorry love, I'm knackered.”

“Probably famished as well. Just sit there. I dropped in at Waitrose on the way over.” The green and white carriers are bulging over the kitchen counter. Pizza, bags of pre-washed salad, bottles of wine. Posh pizza. Neither of them has ever pretended to be cooks, but at least Laura has introduced him to a better class of junk.

Below, the washing machine door is ajar, just as left this morning, sheet and duvet cover stuffed inside, dry, crumpled and unwashed. He should make the bed, but right now he can't find the will to rise from the sofa.

“S'alright,” he says. “I grabbed something earlier.”

“Wine, then.” Laura rummages in the drawer for a corkscrew. “You look like you could do with a drink.”

What he really needs is a Zantac; this afternoon's pasty seems to be sitting just under his ribs, but all he can find to say is, “Sounds perfect.”

“Glasses. Glasses.” Laura stretches high into the cupboard overhead. “Jean said you found some photographs at the victim's house.”

“Ummm.”

“Of James.”

“Yeah.” Robbie shifts on the sofa to make space. It's grown soft, sagging as Laura joins him, rolling them together, thigh to thigh. He's dozed through too many nights here. It won't make the next move with him, to his next home. The one he and Laura will share.

“Neck rub?”

“Yeah.”

“Budge up then.” Her fingers are cool and strong. The needle of pain behind Robbie’s right eye starts to recede.

“And?”

“And what?”

“The photographs...”

“I'm off the case.”

“I know you too well, Robbie Lewis. You're like a dog with a bone - you're either chewing on it or burying it.” Her thumbs dig into the base of his skull, and he winces, at the sudden pain, at the over-bright images in his head.

“They're just pictures, Laura. A lad with his kit off, looking moody. Wouldn't turn many heads.”

“They'd turn mine. Hey, Robbie, come on, smile - it's a joke!”

“Do you think he's attractive?” Robbie shifts to face her, taking one hand in his. The other still rests gently on his neck.

Laura's brow furrows, not, he thinks, at the question itself, but at the stillness in him.

“I've probably known him too long now - but yes, I remember thinking that the new sergeant was bloody gorgeous. In an angular sort of way.”

“An equine eleven.”

“Did I say that?”

“Do you fancy him?”

“Robbie?”

“Well, do you?”

“I - No. Maybe, once. But now? No - he's a friend, a colleague.”

He sighs. “So am I.” The ambiguity of his words turns, unspoken, on his tongue; your colleague, my colleague.

“And I've got my hands quite full enough with you!” She takes the points of his collar and pulls him forward to meet in a kiss, soft, lips barely parted, the merest hint of wine on warm breath.

His hands slide over her waist, her back, under her shirt, the silk as soft and smooth as her skin. He could be happy, here, buried in Laura's embrace.

His fingers trace the curve of her breast. He has come to know this fold of soft flesh as precisely as he remembers the weight of James's hand, fallen in innocent sleep across his thigh. More so, for all the times he has cupped it, pressed his lips to it, loved it as he loves her. It is like Laura herself, pert and self-contained, pink and gold, and sweet and salt. Its curve is a smile.

Her breathing quickens, her lips open to his, her taste oddly bitter. He can feel her heart under his palm, thready, out of step, moving rapidly along a path he cannot follow.

Her nipple rises and stiffens.

Nothing stiffens in him.

He can choose to continue. He has already learned how to make her breath quicken though his does not, to make her body stir and shiver with hands and lips and tongue. Surely there is a satisfaction to be found in that? He would die to keep her safe, so he can work to make her happy.

But that is not what Laura needs or asks from him.

Somehow she must sense the ambivalence of his touch. She pulls back, her eyes open, her hands tugging her shirt back into place.

“You’re looking at me as if I'm a puzzle to be solved,” she says and reaches for her glass. “Or a tricky bit of DIY.” It’s a rebuke, albeit spoken without rancour.

That’s the problem. Laura does not lie. She has never sweetened the truth for him and demands the same honesty in return.

“I'm the puzzle.” His own wine sits untouched. “Laura - if this was all there was. The two of us, bottle of wine, sofa, telly, someone to come home to. Would it be enough?”

“Look,” she says, rubbing his shoulder with brisk affection, “it's been a tough few days. We'll talk another time...”

“Because I think this is all there is. All there can be.”

“We can work this out...”

“There is nothing to work with.” There, it’s said. “Laura. It's not the plumbing.” It feels almost like an admission of infidelity, and he blushes despite himself. “Far as I can tell, the plumbing is fine.”

Her eyes narrow. “So. It’s the wiring, after all. “

He folds her hand in both of his, kisses it. “Laura, you are my oldest, dearest friend...”

“Less of the old, if you don't mind.”

“You have always been the one person I could trust to speak the truth, even when it hurt.”

“I sound like a monster.”

“And you have never compromised. Never settled. In all the years I’ve known you. If I thought I could give you more, I would. I'd move heaven and earth. But if this - if this is all there is, all I have, if you tell me it’s enough for you, I'll draw the curtains and spend the rest of my life here, trying to make you happy.”

Laura gently disengages her hand to refresh her glass, but thinks better of it, and replaces the bottle unpoured.

“There is something I need to know,” she says.

“Anything. I promise.”

“Is there someone else?”

Yes. “No. What makes you ask that?”

“You just seem so certain.”

“There is no one.”

“Tell me,” she says, “how did you know that Val was the ‘One’?”

“God, Laura-” Relief and guilt pair up to kick him in the gut. “I didn't mean to...” Mean what? To tell you that my love for you is limited, grudging. ”If I've ever made you feel second best...”

“Ssssh, no. Robbie, no. I didn't mean that. It's okay. It really is.” She brushes the hair back from his forehead with a tenderness that makes him want to weep. ”I'm just curious, honestly. All right, maybe, I'm a tiny bit envious. But not of Val - of you.” She bites her lip. ”You’ve experienced something rare, something I’ve never known or understood, and all these years I’ve been too much of a coward to ask.”

“How would it help?"

“I’m supposed to be scientist. I’ve been staring into the secrets of the heart every day of my life for twenty years. To understand a thing, I should lay out the pieces and look, with open eyes and mind. So. Help me now. Tell me.”

“I didn't. Know, I mean-” Robbie sighs, and closes his eyes. ”We weren't even a couple. My mate was going out with a girl at the Poly. Val was the flatmate, but we used to end up together at the end of the evening, like a pair of gooseberries. Then they split up, and somehow Val and me just kept meeting up, every couple of weeks. Just someone to talk to, go to concerts, that sort of thing. Just friends. I must be really dense about these things, because... yes, alright, I know that smile, Doctor Hobson! I didn't get it. Until...”

“Until?”

He shrugs. “One day she calls me, to say goodbye. Her auntie’s sick, so she's going to drop out for a while, hitch-hike to Oxford, spend some time with him. I told her not be so daft – I’d drive her. "

His skin prickles with the memory of his first sight of Oxford, through the fog of a bitter November evening. “We talked, all the way down.  First time I’d been south of Birmingham, somehow I thought it would be warmer.  Dropped her at her auntie’s, and I was just thinking how dull the drive back would be, on me own, when she leaned through the car door and kissed me First time - sure you want to hear this?”

“Tell me.”

“It was like - like getting an electric shock. I thought my heart had stopped - couldn't even breathe. Wasn't sure if the world had turned upside down or just my stomach. And that was it. ”

Laura looks almost relieved. “Thank you.” She leans forward.

Her closed lips brush his. Dry and warm and utterly chaste.

The world stays exactly as it was, the right way up.

Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.

They sit in silence, for a moment. Her glass almost empty, his untouched.

“I think,” she says, at last, “I think perhaps we could learn to live with what we have now. Or we might just learn to like each a little less, bit by bit, until there is nothing left except resentment.”

And only then does the colour drain from her cheeks, as if her admission has driven the breath from her lungs. She stands abruptly. “I need air... No - stay here. Please. I just want some time.”

Robbie feels certain there must be a word or gesture that would hold her here, a minute, an hour longer. He tries neither.

“Let’s talk again, tomorrow,” she says.

“Yes,” he says, and she is gone.

Call her back.

Robbie listens to the long minutes before Laura's car starts.

Go to the door, you idiot. Call her back.

He sits until the growl of the engine fades into the distant swish of the ring road and silence fills the house again.

Oh, brilliant work, Lewis.

Two glasses of wine, one empty, one full.

Royally pissing off your two closest friends, in a single day? Congratulations.

He reaches for the wine. The glass topples and spills, turning in a perfect circle on the table top before falling to the floor. He lets the pieces lie. The bottle in the bookcase provides better comfort.

The first tumbler of whisky burns a path through the tight knot of misery in his chest.

The second becomes a toast. Cheers, Morse, you should be proud. Old, alone, and drinking.

The third slips down much, much more easily.

Might as well go the whole hog. He pulls out the loudest, most miserable, most German looking CD he can lay his hand on, and flicks the volume up full.

Loud enough to drown the clamour in his skull.

And bugger the neighbours.

Chapter Text

We climbed, he first and I behind,
Until, through a small round opening ahead of us
I saw the lovely things the heavens hold,

And we came out to see once more the stars.”

Dante. The Divine Comedy: Inferno
Canto XXXIV, 135-9

 photo carcerivii_zps1t9jyahb.jpg

Lying here, in the dark, he can almost remember, once, he dreamed of sunlit streets, and air, and perhaps of something other than an endless blind pursuit.

The stone beneath his cheek is tooth-piercing cold and dry, thirsty enough to pull skin from flesh, flesh from bone. Each time he falls he loses a little more, fraying palms, elbows, knees, fingers. He’ll rise again, presently, and climb again.

They must be far above the city now.

Somewhere, in the cellarage, fathoms below, he thinks he was once the prey, that he waded through water, slime and fear, with the snap of teeth always at his heels. Now he is the hunter.

He has been in the dark so long he has forgotten the light, and the faces of those who live in it – but he knows the Beast, as he saw it last, when he turned, in despair or defiance, and waited for its long jaws to tear at him.

Instead, it merely gazed back at him, through weeping red-raw eyes, snarled once, and fled.

It has been climbing ever since, every passage, doorway, crossing or stairwell leading upwards, until even the air grows cold and thin as a razor’s edge.

Once he saw it, in the turning of the stair above him, a grey gleam of lean haunches, the tip of its twitching tail. An icy breeze stirred his hair, and twisting upward, he glimpsed a fist-sized opening, far, far overhead, full of unmoved, unmoving stars, and the bones of his own outstretched hand before his face.

It is still there, ahead of him. He can smell it, hear its pant, a skitter of claw on stone, the slow drip of drool. Waiting.

For what?

His limbs are nerveless, dead things beneath him. He must cling to the curved wall to rise.

Come on, you bastard, I’m all done. Finished. Take me.

He hears it retreat. Step by step. Ahead of him, beyond his reach.

Another step. His heart pounds, blood bursting through brain, and lungs, his whole body thrust onward, upward, until with one last turn, he is spat out of darkness into light and space and airy gold.

He sways on the parapet of a vast dome, one half-stumble from the brink.

Below, far, far below, towers and spires, roofs, stairs, pavements, canals roll blue and grey, to a fine ribbon of glistening silver. At last. Far off. The glistening, undulating sea..

His balls clench with terror and joy and an irresistible urge to leap into fathoms of warm air, and fall.

He has forgotten the long climb.

He has forgotten the darkness.

He has almost forgotten the great beast that stalks him.

Until he feels its hot breath on his neck.

He gathers his anger in both fist, and seizes his tormentor.

But finds only a man.

Long and lean and gold and naked.

One pale hand is stretched out to him, in greeting or supplication, or to display the red pearl in the hollow of the palm.

The other is flung wide to stall a backward staggers towards the swimming abyss.

For one lifetime-long heartbeat their fingers meet, and hold.

Then James is falling back away from him, arm still outstretched, diminishing so slowly he seems almost to float over the great blue expanse of a destroying world.

Chapter Text

Robbie Lewis lands with a heart-stopping thud, on his own sofa, in the darkness of his own living room, his head pounding as hard as the pulse in his veins.

His hands are empty. Something falling, missing. He gropes blindly, feels glass, smooth and cool slide from fumbling fingers into his lap.

Only then does he recognise a third tattoo, beaten out in counterpoint on the front door. The almost empty whisky bottle spins to the carpet as he staggers upright, muttering, ‘bloody neighbours’, and wrenches back the door.

"She's only gone and called a dawn raid, battering ram, ITV film crew, the works." DC Hooper barrels past him, and a few steps behind, Frankie De Souza, a terrier snapping at the heels of a bloodhound. "She's a mate of yours, in't she? Get on the blower, stop her."

Robbie pushes the door shut. "What the hell are you on, Hooper?" The thumping behind his eyes refuses to ease. "And why are you here," he checks his watch, "at four in the bloody morning?"

"Maitland," says De Souza, shoulders hunched. "She's got a warrant."

The cold slide these words provoke in Robbie's gut has nothing to do with his hangover. "On what grounds?"

"Flight risk," Hooper says. "Apparently this defrocked vicar club Hathaway’s holed up with has links with Uganda..."

"Uruguay," De Souza butts in with the correction.

"No extradition treaty, apparently. And there's the van– go on, tell ‘im."

"CCTV turned up a people-carrier entering Fry's Hill Car Park just past midnight Friday morning, leaving 20 minutes later. Registration came back to an M.F. Waite of 157 Isis Way, Oxford."

"But the real kicker is the, well..." Hooper's face is beetroot, as much with embarrassment as anger.

"Go on, Hoops. Show him. We agreed, he has to see this."

Robbie starts to see how this unlikely alliance is forming under pressure. De Souza, tight with facts and quiet fury, Hooper flailing in his outraged appeal to authority. His authority.

Hooper screws up his nose and pulls a creased manila envelope from his pocket, crams it into Robbie's hands, and steps back, thrusting his hands deep into his pockets as if his hands will never venture into the world again.

"You shouldn't be showing me this," Robbie says, but he has to see.

He has to know.

His mouth is dry, his palm damp. He hopes neither of them realises that his hands are shaking as he tears open the envelope.

Now this. This really is blackmail material. Not art. No restrained placement of limbs and light and shadows.

This is what was called in his youth ‘Gross Indecency contrary to the Sexual Offences Act 1967’ or, more simply, cock-sucking.

This is James Hathaway.

Fucking.

With another man.

Robbie wants to look away, he wants to look closer, he wants to tear the two bodies apart with his shaking hands. He needs Hooper and De Souza to leave, now. He needs…

…to concentrate on the specifics. On the evidence he is holding.

The photographs: Twelve shots in all, printed two up on A4 copier paper. Colour. A single unmoving point of view. Under lit. With a fish eye lens.

Not pornography then. Blackmail from the start?

The subject: Two men. Naked. Corkscrewed together. One long and pale, upturned to the light, the other strong and broad and dark, face buried to his task.

Robbie's mouth is dry. He is being watched, intently, impatiently for reaction. His face burns, skin crackling. He licks his lips. His lips are cracked.

Identity: James’s lips are parted, head thrown back, neck and back arched, bowstring tight. One hand twined in his lover’s hair, twisted into the glossy dark head bowed over his crotch, one hand is stretched, raised, corded and braided with another’s strong, broad fingers.

Robbie needs to breathe. He needs to seize his coat and run. He needs to see James arch like that under his touch.

No wonder Maitland got her warrant. No wonder Innocent dare not gainsay it.

These are images to kill for. To die for.

Robbie’s hand shakes a little. There's a buzzing in his ears that Robbie realises must be Hooper, speaking.

"...I bloody hate blackmailers. Bloodsucking scum, the lot of 'em..."

But Robbie is hearing other voices, echoes from the previous day; “You can't help. This isn’t something you can fix,” and feeling the fierce grip of surprisingly strong fingers on his wrist - “He is protecting me.”

Robbie looks up, at the two unlikely allies standing in his living room. Two expectant faces, De Souza tight and miserable, Hooper bewildered, angry and trusting.

"Why are you here?"

Hooper, cut off mid-rant, is simply bewildered. "Boss?"

"Why are you here? What the hell do you want from me?"

"To stop it, of course. Because Hathaway might be a hoity-toity pansy pain in the backside, but he's our pain and it’s our backside, and I'm not having some jumped up tart dragging him out of bed and into a black maria, just to hitch her way one more notch up the greasy pole to Chief Constable."

"And just how do you expect me to save him, eh? Fly him across the border in a single engine plane? To live out his life in exile in Cardiff - or Pontypool? Grow up, Hooper."

"Boss-”

"This is isn’t police work, Sir," De Souza cuts in, "It’s PR, and you know it.”

"So do your jobs! You are cops, right? Find the evidence. Find the killer. Whoever it is." Robbie thrusts the bundle back into De Souza arms. “And destroy these, for Chrissakes, or say goodbye to your careers.” And his, and mine. One sheet falls to the carpet, face up. Something has been loosed into his world that can never be safely locked up again.

"They'll kill him, boss,” says Hooper, quietly. "A queer bent copper on remand? Every hard man we've ever sent down will be lining up to shiv him, first time he opens that big clever gob of his. I know. I've wanted to often enough.

"You seen Jack Cornish recently? No, thought not. Washed your hands of him, you did, when you finally sent him down. It’s not pretty. He told me he didn't sleep for the first three months, leastwise not with both eyes closed, and they still got to him. Hathaway’s your boy –they'll eat him alive in there, and if we don't care, who does?"

Robbie just stares at Alan Hooper’s fat, flat, hopeful face, round as a stopped grandfather clock, and right twice a day despite himself, and for all the wrong reasons.

God knows he’s led enough dawn raids in his own career. It’s all just theatre, a familiar script; the audience assembling, cameras rolling, hi-vis jackets, smashed doors, the long walk into shot, carefully framing the picture they all want; the shamed perpetrator, dragged from his seedy refuge to be paraded before the gawping world, cringing from the flash of lights. Barefoot, red-eyed, robed in a sacrificial blanket of guilt.

Fitted up. Like one of Lyn's paper dolls.

I tried to hold him and I let him fall.

Robbie reaches for the hanger on the back of the bedroom door. “Sergeant De Souza. Go back to the nick, re-join your team and make sure you do exactly what you are ordered to do. Do you understand?" As he pulls on the clean shirt, the pink cleaning slip flutters to the carpet.

He cuts short De Souza’s protest. “You’ve already done what’s needed. You're young, your career matters. I don’t want you to get caught up on the wrong side of whatever happens next.”

He is moving now on autopilot, as on so many other early morning calls to action; tucking a fresh shirt into yesterday’s clothes and checking the toolkit, keys, phone, handkerchief, and torch. Polo mints to substitute for toothpaste and a night’s sleep.

Except – James should be waiting for him, hovering on his doorstep, a burning ember in the pre-dawn chill.

"Whereas, this fat bastard here is almost as old and useless as me."

"Well thanks, Boss," says Hooper, uncertainly, clearly still unsure at the change in his superior's demeanour.

"Have you got cash on you? Here’s twenty – no, forty quid. You go to Khan's, right now. The dry-cleaner in the parade? He lives above the shop, so you keep ringing the bloody bell until he's up and cooperative. I want everything Inspector Hathaway's got in his shop; suit, shirt, the lot." He pulls on his own jacket, checks his pockets. Keys, phone, even the tattered coil of silk and tissue. “And shoes – check behind the heel-bar.”

"Then you bring them right round to Isis Way. Discreetly, mind. Park at least a street away and wait for directions.”

Chapter Text

Every city has a still point in its day, the hour before dawn, when the young have roared home from clubs and pubs and parties, the old have yet to rise and draw back their curtains, and the keen have yet to pull on their running shoes.

Robbie dare not match his speed to his concern or his racing heartbeat. His time is limited, but he is still, he realises, more than a little drunk, and attention is the last thing he needs or wants at this moment.

He has his radio scanner on, reading meaning into the operational chatter. He can place himself exactly among the team assembling, right now, back in Cowley, polystyrene coffee cups and stab-proof vests, the mood uneasy, banter subdued by knowledge that this time the target may be one of their own.

The press will be with them by now, carefully chosen and corralled – “embedded”, inthe phrase Petersen borrowed from the military. The promise of an exclusive, the money shot, the ram breaking the lock, will make them dependent, biddable. But it also dictates the timing of the raid. A TV crew prefers full daylight, so Robbie calculates he has at least 50 minutes to reach James before them.

His palms sweat on the wheel as Robbie passes the turn into Isis Way. He’s plotting the area in his head as he drives, calling on decades of knowledge to guide him. St Anthony’s will already be under observation, but he must gamble that the stretch to the rear of the house may yet be accessible.

There, there it is. A familiar looking chip van, shuttered and silent, which conceals cameras and two coppers rather than cooling fat, parked at the corner with an oblique view of the street and of St Anthony’s itself, behind the screen of ivy and winter trees.

If he turns just here, yes, behind the Nursing Home and the old tennis courts, he can park out of sight, cut through the alley to the back of the house, and hope to reach his goal before his colleagues move in.

He lopes across the crescent to the Pattersons’ snug little bungalow and into the neat garden backing onto St Anthony’s, more confident now that the annex is not under observation yet.

The wall, which seemed so slight the day before, looks daunting now, and the house beyond, black and lifeless, its windows blank and empty. There’s no ivy here to provide a convenient route over, no crumbled bricks .Conn is far too meticulous a home-owner for that, and Robbie has no sergeant to boost him the three or four feet to grasp the coping.

He casts around for an alternative, a garden chair or tub. The shed is chained and locked, and neither padlock nor hasp will yield to his hand. He stoops to pull a rock from the neat border and raises it overhead to smash the lock asunder.

"Who's that!? Come out where I can see you!"

"Conn?” Robbie turns to the source of the light, and winces at the brightness of the beam playing across his eyes. “For Chrissakes, man, keep your voice down.”

"I'll call the police!"

"I am the police!

"Mr Lewis…?” Conn materialises, in slippers and ironed pyjamas, and with a crowbar clutched in one pudgy fist. “I thought you was burglars!”

“Conn. Can I get into St Anthony’s from the back?”

“There used to be a wicket gate – but Father Waite had it bricked up years back. God rest his soul.”

The ground shifts under Robbie’s feet in a way that has nothing to do with whiskey. “Waite’s dead?"

“Last night, about ten. At home, in his own bed, mind, with all those lads around him. My Mo is ever so upset, what with that and a killer on the loose. Can’t barely sleep. You lot any closer to finding out what happened to poor Mr Dunn?”

Perhaps,” says Robbie, glancing up to the sagging bulk of the annex, slumped against the older, larger parent building. The ties holding James to this place and to his silence are dissolving now, even as the old man’s body cools.

And there, he glimpses, high above, a single point of light, a glowing ember, so close he might almost taste the smoke, yet far beyond his reach.

“What we need is in there,” he says, and “Can you help me?”

Conn peers at him, stupidly, the crowbar still raised awkwardly as if embarrassed to be caught with it in his hand.

“Conn? What’s going on?”

That’s all I need, thinks Robbie, seeing Maureen Patterson outlined in the kitchen door. Why not call the whole Crescent over, we can drink coffee and discuss setting up a bloody neighbourhood watch scheme.

“Shussh, love, nothing to worry about. It’s just Inspector Lewis. He’s asked me to help find the killer.” And with that, Conn seems to put his doubts and scurries into action, fetching a bunch of keys, unlocking the shed and helping to prop the short ladder against the wall, and all the while Robbie frets, and texts, and dreads the lights and cries that would herald the arrival of his colleagues to investigate.

Finally, at the top of the wall, Robbie risks the torch, shielding the beam from unknown watchers with his hand, the blood in his fingers staining the light red.

The ridge had once been topped by teeth of broken glass, whether to keep the unwed mothers in, or the local lads out, Robbie cannot say, but enough shards remain to make his next move an unpleasant prospect.

When Robbie first made the detective squad, so long ago, he thought he was on his way to financial security at last – until he realised how much of his salary would end up in mangled and junked suits. Now he shrugs off his jacket, lays it over the chipped cement and hopes for the best.

"Conn,” he hisses into the shadows below, “stay in the house with Maureen and keep the lights off. There’ll be a big chap coming this way in a short while - DC Hooper. I’ve sent him directions.” He grins in the darkness at the thought of Hooper puffing and cursing up the ladder. “And, next time you think you see a burglar - don't try to take them on yourself; just lock the doors and dial 999. Okay?"

Then he slides gingerly over the wall and drops into darkness.

Blinding white pain courses from fibula to fingertip on impact.

"You alright there, Mr Lewis?" he hears Conn faintly from the other side.

For a few moments, he is unable to speak coherently.

“Mr Lewis?”

Robbie tests his ankle and grunts. It will ache for days to come, but will take his weight.

“I’m coming over, Mr Lewis – “

“No – stay where you are. I’m fine.” He tugs at his jacket. It comes away with the whisper of torn wool. Bugger. What he has in mind requires him to at least look respectable.

The generator, thumping as fast and hard as his heart, guides him through the crackle of last year’s vines and leaf-fall. Knee-high grass dampens trousers and footsteps, and Robbie lungs fill with the scent of crushed leaves and hyacinth. Just as he reaches the cellar door, the moon slides from cloud cover and transforms the garden into a mosaic of black and silver dots.

It takes only a few seconds to locate the correct key by touch, a single iron shaft among the jumble of Conn’s slippery yales, and Robbie is in, leaving the door ajar for Hooper to follow.

Moments later, he is clutching the lintel as he catches himself on the threshold of the old laundry, the six dank steps worn slick by generations of shod feet, soap, and steam. In the narrow beam of his torch, the industrial machines loom below him, like the boilers of a long drowned liner.

To the left, an unlit staircase twists up and away through the annex, breathing out the ghosts of mice, mildew, dust and disuse, and perhaps a memory of milk and soiled nappies.

It leads him up through a maze of landings, turns and mezzanines, all odd angles and doors in the wrong places.

In one room, walls painted with sea creatures, whales and crabs and cheerful starfish, colours faded and splodged with damp, cracked tiles and pipes reveal the outline of long vanished showers and basins.

In another the ceiling has fallen, to cover stored cradles and stacked chairs with a drift of plaster like snow.

Finally he turns to face the last door, closed and blank but for a line of fitful, flickering light escaping underneath.

Robbie knocks, gently, and waits.

The door opens at last to a sliver of candle light and to a face swollen and creased, but not by sleep.

“Let’s talk,” Robbie says, and James Hathaway stands aside to let him pass into the room beyond.

Chapter Text

The room is bare, as bleak as James’s expression. Two candles, wax pooling on the worn linoleum, and a pale blanket draped bedstead, pushed against the wall. The rest of the space recedes into shadow, only the barest impression of doorways, and steps, and uninhabited echoes.

James is stripped to the waist, dripping, as if disturbed in the midst of plunging his head into cold water, the bones of his shoulders and ribs casting shadows in his still bruised flesh. He ducks with a wariness that Robbie identifies as shame.

Robbie raises a hand to forestall whatever apology or attack James might be about to launch.

"Just listen. I know this is a bad time. I wish I could make it go away, but you have to know, and you have to make plans. The goon squad are coming through the front door at first light, with a warrant, a press release and a dozen cameras."

James doesn't waste time in outrage or protest. "What do they have?"

That's my boy, Robbie thinks, bizarrely proud. Straight to the point, concentrating on specifics, on the case.

"Enough. They’ll get 36 hours without difficultly, maybe remand, if you're charged.”

They, Robbie realises. Not we. For the first time since he was a rookie, in a blue collar that rubbed his neck raw, he has placed himself on the other side, among the outlaws. “I called Felicity Pryor's chambers; she'll meet us at the station, try to get you out as soon as possible."

"What do they have?" James repeats, mildly. They are both professionals, they both know that the right evidence can convict the innocent and let the guilty walk free.

They have you, James. The wadded paper weighs down his pocket, like guilt. They have you and your lover.  Now Robbie is the one unable to meet the other’s gaze.

"They have this," he says, holding out the folded sheet, "from Dunn's place. You. With Meredith Waite."

Means, opportunity - motive.

James stares at the photo in his hand. His face is white. One hand goes to his mouth to strangle a curse. His legs fold, neatly, and he sinks onto the bed.

Age and cancer might bow a dying man's shoulders, but once his hair had been thick and glossy, and his hands had been as broad and firm and, to Robbie’s eyes, unmistakable folded on the bed sheet as they are on paper, as they were on James Hathaway's skin, a decade earlier.

Only now does Robbie notice the cord around looped James's wrist, knotted and tasselled, tight enough to redden and mark the flesh below. For some reason, it chills him, reminds him of stories of hair-shirts, fasting and flagellation, and he fears it.

“I’m sorry," Robbie says, but for what, he is not sure. For James’s grief? For his intrusion into a private sorrow? Or for its thickening effect on the gulf that seems to have opened between them? Or that James had loved another and lost him.

"Mickey said he had evidence,” James says. “I wasn't sure I believed him, until now.” He tugs absently at the cord, twisting it hard into his flesh. “I hadn’t even realised he’d known.”

Robbie feels a prickle of heat, of anger or jealousy. "At least you don't need to protect anyone but yourself now."

“It was only a few weeks, a month at most. It could have destroyed him.”

“You were vulnerable, homeless --” Robbie struggles to form the words against the twist in his gut, the thought of James, here, ten years ago, alone, with a guitar and no future, and the man who took him in and - took him. "It was abuse. You know that."

"Yes. Yes, it was." James smiles and briefly strokes the paper. "He didn't stand a chance. I abused my youth and freedom and his loneliness, because I could, and because I wanted him. My selfishness almost destroyed a great man. I swore never to make that mistake again."

"Christ. Come on, man!" Robbie wants to seize James, and shake him. “Just listen to …” He takes a deep breath. Later. Now he needs to focus on essentials, on this morning, this moment, on James. "You know you can't be taken like this. You have to be ready. Hooper's on his way with your clothes - suit, shirts, shoes..."

"Hooper?" James asks, eyebrow raised.

"You're going to open the front door at five-before and walk out of here looking like a detective, not a bloody nonce! Here..." He rips the sea-green silk tie from his pocket and tosses it into James lap. It lies there, uncoiling heavily, snake-like.

“Isn’t there something you've forgotten?"

"We don’t have time…”

"All this - and you haven't asked me."

"Asked you what?"

"If I killed Michael Dunn."

Robbie opens his mouth. And closes it again.

"Don't you want to know?” James presses.

Robbie stares at him. Both of them recognise this moment, with instinct honed by hundreds of hours of interviews; one of these sweet soft ripe moments, where some bud swells and breaks, where words flow out to surprise both interrogator and prisoner, congealing on the table between into new truths, new realities, new futures.

"No," says Robbie, and the revelation he has carried unspoken since the sunset over Fry's hill slips into the world, fully formed. The question is irrelevant. Trivial.

"No," Robbie says, and the bedsprings creak as he sits, where he can finally see James level, face to face, "I don't need to know. I'm not here as your confessor, or your interrogator.”

“As what, then?”

“A friend. I don't need an answer, because whatever you say, it can’t change what I do next. I’ll walk out of this place with you, step by step, whatever happens, as long and as far as I am able.

“And before you try it, saying something smart and mean is not going to change my mind!”

Chapter Text

There is nothing left to do now but wait.

Robbie’s watch is ticking. Any moment now he will speak, James will stand, and then their lives spool away into the future. But not yet.

All tension, the brittle edge that has held James upright and apart for so many days, has flowed out. The man slumped beside him is boneless, in free fall, and, it seems, trusts Robbie to catch him. His eyes droop, even as the candle gutters, and the window becomes a pale rectangle of sky.

“Thank you,” James says.

“For what, man?”

“For coming  back. Yesterday,” James’s eyes are open after all, watching him, “what I said. I had no right…”

“A lot was said yesterday. Let’s drop it. I’m sorry. You’re sorry. Slate clean, no need to fret over it.”

“You are OK?”

“’Course I am! Look, why are we talking about me?”

“Something you said-”

“Just switch that big brain of yours off for a minute, will you.”

“You said – ‘Robert Lewis, slept with just one person his whole life’

“Did I? I really must learn to watch my tongue when there are detectives around.”

“So, you and Laura?”

“We’re both fine.” Robbie looks again at the red-rimmed eyes. “James, when exactly did you last sleep?”

“Hmm. Wednesday?”

“Oh, good god, man – three nights like this? No wonder you’re seeing problems that aren’t there!”

James closes his eyes.

“Maybe,” he says. “Wouldn’t be the first time. Still have the pills in the cabinet to show for it.” He yawns, widely, like a fox. “Should have borrowed Ade’s when he offered.”

“Sleeping pills.”

“Yeah – everyone here ends up on them. Local GP is old school, hands them out like Smarties. The house must be rattling with them. There’s coffee if you want some – nasty instant slop from Mrs P.”

“No, thanks.  I’ve tasted that already.” Robbie shifts a little, just enough to allow James to fall against him, even as he carefully files the words for later analysis.

“Laura loves you very much,” James says. “That’s important. Don’t fuck it up.”

The weight on Robbie’s shoulder is so familiar and comfortable, so precisely the memory he conjured the night before, that he’s a little dizzy.

“Charming. James, do people generally come to you for relationship advice?”

“Not as a rule, no. Can’t think why, my own life being such a model of domestic felicitude.”

“Ah. You just haven’t met the right,” Robbie stumbles for a second, “bloke.”

“That must be it.”

“Well, what do I know? I’ve been trying to make sense of this love business since before you… conjugated your first Latin noun.”

“Verb. You conjugate verbs, not nouns. Amo, Amas, Amat…”

“It's just-" Robbie says. “Laura's a friend. A really good mate.”

“That’s good.”

“And when it comes down to… you know…”

“It?”

“Yeah, It. After all those years, it feels wrong somehow, like - like - oh I don’t know, snogging Morse!”

“God, Robbie! I've no idea how snoggable the late Inspector might have been, but I really, really hope you didn't tell Laura that!”

“Jesus, man! I’ve got a few problems - but I’m not bloody suicidal!”

Something is unsettling him, about the room. Like a forgotten gas tap or a bath left running. He needs to be moving again, thinking again. “Where's that idiot Hooper? I left the back door open for him.”

“Robbie,” James says. “Will you do something for me?”

Robbie tears his eye from floor, from the patch of light on the floor, marking the approach of dawn. “’Course.  Anything.”

“If I’m not bailed –“

“You’ll get bail. That’s what the suit and the fancy lawyer are for.”

“Robbie, please, if. Conditional clause. If I don’t get bail, will you look after my guitar?”

“Is that all – man, of course I will. Least I can do. Don’t you worry, I’ll bring it in for you – if you go down. You can be the Elvis of Bullingdon Category B.”

James smiles. “You can’t. Prisons are now guitar free paces, thanks to our enlightened Justice Secretary.”

And Robbie finally recognises, in all its specific horror, what waits for James on the far side of the front door. Like every other cop in jail, whether for days, or weeks, or years, he will be on The Rule, secluded along with the grasses, the nonces and the kiddie fiddlers, as a risk to himself and others. Twenty three hours a day on the lock. No exercise, no work, no association – and now, no parcels from the world outside, books, magazines, no carefully chosen bags of toothpaste and overpriced underpants.1

And for all his bravado and his promises, Robbie can’t walk beside him through that door, or hold him like this, in gaps between night and daylight.

“Hey, don’t look like that, Robbie. Trust me - prison can’t be any worse than a boarding school. I survived that more or less intact, and the food has to be better. Just - keep her safe for me. Promise.”

Hooper was right, but it wouldn't be the hard men who killed James. It would be his own lovely, fucked-up brain.

“I promise,” Robbie says.

The golden comfort of the last few moments has fled. There is just this chill half-furnished room in the dull pre-dawn light, and a puddle of wax congealing on the scuffed linoleum. Robbie shivers.

“One last thing, before we’re interrupted,” James is smiling, head cocked to one side, like a bird considering whether to strike.

It is so familiar an expression that Robbie wants to weep.

“Did you ever actually kiss Morse?”

“Once,” Robbie says, finally too frayed to fall back on anything but the unvarnished truth. “To say goodbye. And thank you.”2

James blinks, once, seems to nod, then leans forward to brush dry, chaste lips to Robbie’s cheek.

Robbie’s heart stops. Liquid shock runs through him, rooting in him from stem to sternum. It raises the hair on his arms, his thighs, his head, on the back of the hand which curls itself around James’s skull and draws him back, close.

The second kiss tastes of cigarettes, whiskey, insomnia, peppermint and the ocean, and of James’s own strawberry-seeded tongue, moving against his own.

James’s hands are fluttering against his face. For a moment Robbie draws back in panic, heart thumping.

James’s eyes are huge with shock, his pupils so wide the blue almost disappears. Robbie can see a hectic tide of blood flushing upwards, chest, neck, cheeks. And then it has gone from his sight as James seizes his face in both hands and pulls him down, clutching like a drowning man plunging into the abyss.

James is moving, legs, arms, tangling them together, pushing back to accommodate Robbie’s weight, scrambling to pull him on top.

There is an overwhelming hunger building in Robbie, to grind, to mill, to slide against and into warmth and hardness and softness and skin, and James’s drawing him down, into the perfume, Yes.

And his heart is going like mad and yes I said yes I will...

“Yes."

The solid earth crumbles beneath them both, the world swims, and they are falling together, James beneath him, floating  over the gulf below…

Robbie opens his eyes again…

…to see, beyond James’s shoulder, in the first light, the blue linoleum, rippled and patterned like a city under the sea.

Recognition smashes the words out of him.

“These are the rooms you shared with Dunn.”

James scrambles back from beneath him like a scalded cat.

“Yes.” His face is full of pain and horror, but Robbie doesn’t have time to reassure him.

He has seen that pattern before, at just that angle.

“Robbie?” The confusion in his expression evaporates as he follows Robbie’s thoughts and eye line, upwards, from floor to ceiling.

The dawn light rakes across cracked and convoluted plaster – patterns from an earlier, more elegant age – and across a neat round hole, like an unblinking eye, from which a man might steal photographs of a couple embracing below.

Chapter Text

James is in step with him now, absorbed by the puzzle, the satisfaction of discoveries falling into place.

Flat, fat fluorescent lights open up room after room into a maze of unloved spaces, until they find it, in a windowless box room up a flight of six uneven steps. A hatch in the wall, half hidden by a poster for the Ashmolean, opening into the crawl space under the slates.

Robbie kneels up on a chest of drawers to take a closer look. No further confirmation is needed - Dunn's Judas hole is betrayed by a Morse-code flicker of light from the faulty light-fitting below.

The beam of his torch reveals the rest - tea chests, bundled newspapers, an old pram, a celluloid doll with a crushed skull, all dusted with a seam of black soot that has been settling since the years of coal fires and steam trains. And, as he half-expected, a trail of newer, cleaner boards laid over the joists.

He leans in. The board beneath his knee creaks, triggering a skitter of claws in the far corner. Pigeons, he thinks, firmly. Not rats. Pigeons. Not much better, but at least not rats.

"Stay back. Don’t trust these boards to take the weight of two.”

A few feet in, his hand sinks into something soft, tacky. A plastic pad or mattress. Not full sized, maybe a child’s, but just long enough for a man to lie, curled around himself. The rafter above is padded too, with foam that crumbles at the touch. Odd that. It looks much older than it should if Mickey Dunn pinned it here ten summers ago. Perhaps the contractor who laid the lighting cables feared to bash his head as he worked.

Fighting instinctive revulsion, Robbie lays himself down, shoulder to the mattress, eye to the hole, sees flecked blue and white floating below and imagines James laid out there, under his touch. Then stops, because that image is producing an immediate and inconvenient physical response in him.

He turns instead to the tide-wrack of debris within arm's reach, combing the through spoil with torch-light, and comes face to face with a large and very dusty pair of swollen breasts. ‘Milky Mums’. The title, typeface, and cheap paper catapult him back to his youth in Vice. ‘Shaven Havens’ and ‘Barely Legal’ peep from the layer of dust, and, when he nudges them aside with a handkerchief wrapped finger, ‘Gymslip Jezebels. Issue 22, September, 1992’.

Someone's well-thumbed wank-stash, doubtless read one-handed, just like this, by torch light. Relics from the days when porn came in plain brown paper envelopes rather than a stream of digital noise. Robbie is queasily grateful for the handkerchief.

Dunn's, of course. Why not? Had he carefully carried these mags around for ten years, relieving the tensions of celibacy? Or had he found some other man's collection boxed and abandoned in a skip?

But something about the content doesn't match the suspect. Lying here, camera ready to intrude on an intimate exchange between James and his mentor – yet all the while brooding on big milky tits, round bellies and smooth childish thighs? It’s almost as if Dunn drilled the hole like an archaeologist, hoping to uncover the ghosts of the troubled teens who had nursed their babies here long before he arrived. Unless…

Robbie’s intake of breath stirs fragments of cellophane caught between the pages, little scraps of pink and red. Biscuit wrappers.

He recreates in imagination the man who made this haven; neat, ordered, practical, who lay here in the darkness, leafing through these pages, waiting, watching, wanking, fortifying himself with pink wafers and jammy dodgers. A man who would not be challenged as he clambered into the roof space with cables and drill to replace the lights. "I was an electrical engineer… I helped out the sisters from time to time… that’s what neighbours are for."

"James," he calls, as he backs out, towards the light, a copy of ‘Udders’ still clasped in his hand. "Dunn used the hole all right. But he didn't make it. We need to have a long and meaningful talk with Conn bloody Patterson.”

Chapter Text

James's long legs quickly outpace Robbie down the annex stairs, and on across the chill grass towards the rear wall dividing St. Anthony’s from the Pattersons’ bungalow.

It looks taller still from here, and dark, sheltered from the pre-dawn sky and even from the incongruous lights their search has left burning in the top most windows. Robbie’s ankle is complaining now, and by the time he catches up, only slightly out of breath, James is already contemplating the wall separating the two gardens.

“You got over here?”

“Keep the noise down. I borrowed a ladder from the lying toerag.”

"Give me a leg up."

"What do you think you’re going to do? Patterson's a creep, but an old one – he won’t be going anywhere quickly.”

“I just want a closer look. Don’t you?”

And Robbie does, because he can feel the wrongness of it – the sense of something out of place, out of sync. Patterson eagerness to help no longer seems neighbourly, but defensive. 

“I shouldn’t be encouraging you,” he grumbles, even as he braces his back against the brickwork, and offers his cupped hands to his partner.

For a moment James flails, one long naked foot in Robbie's grasp, the other scrambling for a toe hold in the mortar, hands reaching for the top to pull himself up.

"Watch out for the glass- " Robbie warns.

"OW! You could have said something sooner!"

"Sorry!" Robbie's reply is muffled by grey cotton fleece, James's borrowed sweatpants a finger's breadth from his face. He breathes in warmth, a heady scent of skin and sweat, ripe with recollection of recent desire. The proximity thrills him.

Thrills them both, he quickly realises.

"Get that great thing out of my eye, Hathaway!"

"Well, take your eyes off my great thing for a moment, and concentrate on getting me up here instead."

James plants the other foot on Robbie’s shoulder, driving the breath from his body. "Ah, better, let’s just take a look over - Oh shit."

"What the...? James?" But James is already scrambling up and over, landing with a thud among Patterson's carefully tended wallflowers.

"James!"

Robbie hears nothing but a low groan. He tries to ignore the cold sweat breaking out across his back at the sound. "Hathaway, damn it - speak to me, man!" 

"Call for back up." That groan again, followed by a choked, flabby, intake of breath. “It's Hooper. Okay, big feller, take it easy. Someone's knocked him cold with - looks like a wrecking bar?"

Robbie already has the phone in his hand. "Officer requires assistance. Rear of 13 Isis Crescent, Oscar X-ray Two. Acknowledge." He waits for the affirmative, confirmation that the units he knows must be parked a few streets away are alert to what is unfolding on the far side of the wall.

"Robbie – there’s a light in the kitchen.”

"James Hathaway, you stay with Hooper, that’s an order," Robbie hisses, and is horrified by the note of panic in his voice.  

"The door’s ajar. I’m going to take a look.”

“James – goddamit.” The phone in his hand crackles. “What? I know you have a bloody shout on, I’m in right in the middle of it. I have an officer down, medical assistance and back up required. Suspect is one Connor Patterson, IC1, male, 5 foot 8, late 60s.” He cannot see, he cannot hear, he cannot know what James is walking into. “DI Hathaway is the ranking officer on site. Yes, you heard me – now get those units moving."

Robbie has lived and worked with fear for almost all his adult life, but somehow never quite this sharp or sickening. He strains to hear James’s progress across the lawn, the creak of the back door. He wills the wall to dissolve and let him see James’s tall shadow on the grass. But all he sees is his own, flat and faint against the brickwork.

Without warning that too flickers out of existence. Robbie turns back, towards St Anthony’s, just as all the lights flash on again, one last time, and die, plunging the house into darkness.

Chapter Text

The garden and house may be in darkness, but the unseen birds of North Oxford are not fooled. They call fiercely to each other as Robbie quietly retraces his steps towards the gaping back door: me me me, mine, mine, mine.

Which is how he identifies the source of the unease which has nagged at his gut since he limped across the lawn in James’s wake.

He hears the dawn chorus only because he can no longer hear the generator. The generator whose heartbeat has been keeping St. Anthony’s alive since Patterson brought it back in the mini-van two days ago.

The generator is still lying there, pungent, warm, and silent, in the right angle between house and extension, beside the open back door. Only the petrol can is missing, a little slick revealing where it stood before.

The generator was silent as he and James raced past it moments ago- but the lights in James’s rooms had still been burning.

Someone is playing games. Someone small, and insignificant and helpful, always in the background, wandering where he wills, with his toolbox and his ingratiating smile and his thermos of coffee.

I have been deaf and blind for so long. How could I not see this? I saw only an old man, like me, used up, settling into quiet obscurity. I couldn’t see the lover in Meredith Waite – and I couldn’t see the killer in Connor Patterson.

Robbie thrusts the phone into his pocket and pauses in the threshold, among the mops and buckets and broken brooms. He listens intently for movement beyond, up or down, hearing only the softly rush of running water from the basement.

I have been here before, he thinks, reeling slightly, but cannot pin down the memory of dark, flooded spaces that flees from him like a dream. He shakes it off, takes a deep breath, and steps downward into the dank bleach-scented misery of the old laundry.

Patterson is at the far end, picked out in the light filtered by the tiny cobwebbed window, his back turned, scrabbling at the fuse board with little, pink, mousy paws.

Robbie feels suddenly sick and deflated, as he always does at the end of the puzzle, by the meanness of it all. His skin crawls, he longs to strip the shirt from his back, scrub his skin red raw under steaming water. He thinks of Laura, washing Dunn’s blood from her hands in the mortuary sink, the pink soap oozing onto porcelain.

Soap. He glances down at the slimy discoloured step under his shoe. Not soap. Detergent.

I am standing where Michael Dunn died, his skull smashed against the cement.

Now, as his eyes adjust, Robbie can see what Patterson is about, cutting and crimping a cat’s cradle of wire from the consumer board, looping it over a pipe in the wall, trailing it to a heap of junk stacked high on one of the defunct washing machines - and to the petrol can peeping from beneath. To wipe clean the evidence? Or simply to destroy this house and everything and everyone in it.

Somewhere above, Robbie hears movement, splintering of wood, voices, heavy feet. Must be dawn, he thinks. He wonders how long it will take his colleagues to find them down here, but dare not move or call, or lose his line of sight on Patterson.

The old man must hear it too. He pauses, head cocked, listening, one hand full of cable, the other on the mains switch, breathing hard.

“Not so easy, is it, Conn?”

Patterson’s head jerks, twists, crook-backed towards him.

“Not like doping a cup of coffee and watching a man drink it. Or knocking a man down from behind in the dark.”

The fury and malice working in the old man’s face is so naked that Robbie almost reels back under the impact, feels the hair on his head rise in shock.

Then Patterson smiles and nods, the mask back in place as he turns back to his work, ignoring the puddle of black water slowly spreading about his feet. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr Lewis. Just fixing the lights, see?” And he pulls the switch.

Robbie braces himself, but nothing happens.

“At six in the morning, Conn? But I suppose you’re used to wandering through this house at all hours. Dunn must have worked out who made that little peep-hole upstairs. Girls’ room, was it, back then, Conn?”

“Girls? They weren’t girls. Tarts. Sluts. Spreading their legs, collecting their dole cheques and breeding more scum to ruin this city. They didn’t want looking after, they wanted locking up so decent people like my Maureen didn’t have to hear their filth, or look at…”

“But you looked, Conn. You wouldn’t want Maureen to know that, would you? Her lying in bed, alone, helpless, while you squirrelled off to look for younger, firmer…”

“You shut your mouth!”

“You must have thought it was all forgotten, all safe, ‘til last year, when Dunn turned up out of the blue to ask for hush. Can’t have been easy - not on a pension, not with a wife to look after.”

“Why do you keep on about my wife!”

“But you paid up somehow. Enough to set him up in business. That must have stung.”

“We had a deal.”

“So what went wrong on Thursday, Conn? How did Dunn end up down here with his head smashed in?”

“He slipped. Missed the step. Nothing to do with me.”

Robbie is sure he can hear sirens now, somewhere in the street, with the peculiar raspberry fart of the fire service. Who called them in?

“But he could barely stand, could he? Not with all those pills in him. Don’t blame you. He was a young man. Fit. I’d want him groggy, too.” And he wonders when Patterson first realised that a few pills in a night-time drink would render someone quiet, biddable, pliable. Exactly how much had he got away with over the years while others slept?

“He asked for more, and you reached the end of your tether...”

“Ha! You don’t know a thing. Your kind never do. Bleeding hearts. Soft. You don’t see the way the scum take advantage. Like that nancy boy you put in here to spy on us. Bet that was a nasty shock, wasn’t it, finding him AWOL, hanging out in a pansy bar with all the other perverts, eh? I’m thinking you put quite a rocket under him, the way he came storming back here yesterday. But that’s your problem, Mr Lewis, if you don’t mind me saying. Soft. You give people like that a second chance, and they’ll run rings around you. Laugh at you. You and Father Waite and the Sisters. You think there’s good in folk like Dunn, and that Hathaway, and those little harlots. You need people like me to keep things straight. People who stick to the rules, who don’t break their promises.”

Robbie realises he is no longer alone. He daren’t turn around, but he can feel the presence behind him on the threshold, hear the crackle of radio, and the voices.

“Found them, Ma’am!”

He holds up his hand to signal. Quiet. Back.

“What promise did Dunn break, Conn?”

“He was as weak as the rest of you. Sitting there, crying, going on about his baby, and forgiveness and redemption, with his eye all blacked. Seems he’d seen the light. Going to put it all right. Fair made me sick. Asked me to forgive him before he trotted off to confession upstairs. Then the police, and god knows what else. Said he’d work night and day and pay back every penny, however long it took. He broke his word, see, Mr Lewis. He made a deal, and he broke it. I couldn’t allow that, could I, Mr Lewis?”

“No.”

“I couldn’t have my Maureen hearing all that filth. Have them looking at me in the street and thinking they were better than me. So – I had to make him behave. I see?”

“Yes, I do,” says Robbie.

And he does.

He sees enough and understands enough. The rest can wait for the station, for the questions already forming somewhere in his head. Later he’ll tease out the details, the scraps that make a case; the phone calls, the fuses, the van, the pills, the conveniently timed power-cut. All the rags and tatters of Patterson’s choices, which he was now trying to wipe away with water, petrol and a wrecking bar.

“You did what you had to,” Robbie says, “I know that. So let me help you explain it all. We can sort it out upstairs. I’ll make sure Maureen’s okay.”

Patterson’s fingers flex on the cable, and his eyes flick to the side – not to the kindling and fuel but to the loosely twisted bare wires drooping a finger’s width above the rising water. A look of such triumph and spite crosses the old man’s face that Robbie tastes bile in his mouth.

Dear God, James, get there fast, find her, please God – this man is an annihilator. He wants to send us all to hell ahead of him.

Robbie takes a step down, closer to the dark slick of water.

If this is the last one I bring in, I want him. I want Connor Patterson.

“Come on, Conn,” he says, trying to keep his voice steady, warm. Another step. Water laps the toe of his shoe.Come upstairs with me now. We’ll talk, just you and me. You put the record straight.”

I want him safe and well and comfortable, sitting across a table in my nick, spilling his guts on tape.

Another step. Water, icy cold, splashes his sock. Robbie stretches out his hand.

For poor repentant Mickey Dunn, always on the wrong side of history, for Debbie and the fatherless baby making its way into the world, for Maureen who married him, for Meredith Waite who trusted him.

For James.

Patterson shrinks back. “Don’t come any closer.”

“You’re a smart man, an honest man. No one would blame you for what you had to do. We need you Conn. I need you.” He opens his hand, palm up.

“I'm not afraid,” says Patterson, small and fearful to the very end.

“I know.”

“See,” says Patterson, and he opens his hand, as if mirroring Robbie.

Robbie watches the heavy cable slowly uncoil and twist and fall in the dark sheet of water. He hears voices - four, five, more - crying “No!”, some strange, one as familiar as his own.

He feels hands reaching for him, pulling at his jacket, his shirt, hauling him back.

Then he hears only thunder, and sees only white light. He feels only the breath crushed out of him, as a giant fist takes him and throws him skyward.

Chapter Text

He is buffeted by voices:

“Don’t touch him!”

            “Stand clear-”

                       “Christ almighty!”

And all the time he is gasping for breath like a fish hauled up on the beach. Gaffed.

             “Where the fuck is Demolition?”

                        “I want the power off NOW – the whole fucking street if you have to!”

Definitely the beach, he can smell ozone, and smoke, and singed hair.

“Stay back, dammit.”

Then James looms over him, huge, so close, but somehow as if he is staring down at him through water. Not on the beach, under the sea. I am under the sea. I am drowning. See…

Robbie reaches up. His hand twitches, but does not move. Odd that.

But, oh, James's mouth is on his, his kiss fierce and tender, and the taste of him flows into Robbie’s mouth and lungs. His mouth is full of James, his eyes are full of light, his ears are full of bells; Oxford waking up to an Easter dawn. His heart swells with joy. Full. So full.

Yes, he says, but goes unheard, drowned by the thump, thump, thump of a disco beat slamming into his chest.

“Don’t you dare. Not now. Not now. Please. Breathe, you stubborn… Breathe!”

James must really angry with someone.  Probably me. It usually is. 

He yawns. Tired now. Maybe tomorrow.

Where did the day get to? It’s dark already.

James?

Need to sleep now. Just a little. Tomorrow. We’ll talk tomorrow.

Peace is rolling over him. The sun has set.

His ears are full of the roar of rushing water and the tolling of a one last harsh bell, intoning “No no no no no no no…”

Chapter Text

And from then on my vision rose to heights
higher than words, which fail before such sight,
and memory fails, too, at such extremes.

As he who sees things in a dream and wakes
to feel the passion of the dream still there
although no part of it remains in mind,

Just such am I: my vision fades and all but ceases,
yet the sweetness born of it
I still can feel distilling in my heart: 

So imprints on the snow fade in the sun,
and thus the Sibyl’s oracle of leaves was swept away
and lost into the wind.

Paradise: Canto XXXIII 55-66

 

 

 

 

He sits alone in starlight, planets wheeling overhead. Close enough to touch. He can hear them singing, clear voices as sharp as frost.

The sea, so long absent, is rushing in. Tumbling over the docks and wharfs and warehouses, scouring the streets clean. Pounding the domes and towers to sand.

The cellar where the beast trailed him, where his master waylaid him, will be long drowned by now.

Bells jangle in the flood, then fall silent. Flotsam and wreckage, sucked from the roots of the city, bob past him.

As he watches another tower tumbles and disappears, as will, soon, the place on which he sits, dangling his feet over the abyss where James fell.

Gone. All gone. All washed away.

As if they were never there.

And on the horizon, for the very first time, a sun rising to greet him.

Chapter Text

“Hello,” says the sun.

"Whu...?” His mouth lips move but only a harsh and dusty puff of air falls from his tongue. He swallows, painfully, and tries again. “Where...?”

The sky dissolves. A ceiling. Walls closing, piece by piece, around him. Blue screens. Green walls. White sheets. A tower of monitors and buttons and things going ‘ping’.

And Laura Hobson, leaning over him, smiling, the light sparking gold in her hair.

"You’re in the Radcliffe. Don’t panic. This isn’t a professional visit. You’re still just about among the living…”

“What…?” His voice fails entirely, his throat cracking. He must sound like an idiot.

“Here.” Laura reaches for a sippy cup on the tray beside her and eases her other hand behind Robbie’s neck. “Drink a little.”

The first gulp of tepid water sets him coughing. He is immediately wrapped in agony, his chest screaming with every bark and intake of breath.

“Okay, it’s okay. Just try to breathe.” She presses the cup into his hand. “You were intubated in the ambulance, in case you forgot to breathe again.” She wipes his chin and throat. "And you can thank Hathaway for the bruised lungs and displaced ribs. He did his best to break them for you.”

He remembers then. James's hands on his chest, James screaming ‘Don't you dare! Don’t you dare die on me now!’ and rain falling on his cheek.

“Where…” he swallows hard and casts about the room, but Laura is alone. “James?"

There’s a flash then in her eye that he might almost have missed, a shadow, passing hot and dark across the lens, before she blinks it away. “Jean took him - no, lie back. It’s okay. James is okay. He was here, don’t you remember?”

Robbie tries to lever himself off the bed, tugging at the wires which seem to have attached themselves to his bruised and creaking ribcage. The monitor beside the bed starts to whine.

“ Old man - Patt’son –!” The effort defeats him, and he falls back, coughing again.

“He didn’t make it.”

“Wife?”

“Sorry. They’re both in my fridge, waiting for Angus– “

“Not Rawbone! You- got to be-”

“For pity’s sake, Robbie! I’ve had one or two other things on my mind! Like you doing your best to kill yourself!”

“S’important. Patterson, not James… Just listen –please.”

“I know. We all know. As far as I can tell, most of the emergency services in the Thames Valley seemed to have been patched into your Sunday morning wake-up call, plus at least a dozen members of the press. How many times do we have to tell you? Shoving a mobile into your pocket doesn’t disconnect the line. What wasn’t broadcast was seen and heard by assorted police officers, two defrocked priests, and James Hathaway, in person."

“W’happened?”

“What usually happens when someone combines electricity, water and muscle tissue - say a human heart. Patterson died and you almost joined him. You did, in fact. Twice. Luckily James seems to remember his CPR better than you remember your physics.”

"Mr. Lewis!" The screens are pulled back, and a short dark woman in scrubs appears with a tray in her hand and a determined look in her eye. She clucks as soon as she realises she is dealing with mutiny rather than death and cancels the alarm. “I’m going to have to ban visitors if they upset you like this.”

“I’ll behave,” says Laura, “and so will he. I promise.”

“Just tell me,” Robbie pleads.

“As far as I know, James is off the hook. Utterly and completely. He was here for hours. Dead on his feet, poor lamb, listening to you snore. None of us knew what to do with him. In the end, Jean reminded him she had a valid warrant with his name on, and wasn’t afraid to use it: he could choose whether he slept in her cells or somewhere else, and swept him off. I promised to call them both the next time you surfaced.”

“Hooper?”

“Ten stitches in his scalp, and off home. He wandered in here at one point, ate all your grapes and buggered off again. His skull must be an inch thick. So, there is nothing for you to do now except rest and let the professionals like Nurse Herero here take care of you.”

“Can rest jus’ as well at home!”

Herero looks up from the end of the bed, where she is measuring her patient's output.“You won’t be going anywhere until your kidneys start performing better than this,” she announces, holding up a tube and clearly unimpressed by Robbie's efforts to date. “You’ll be in here for at least another twenty-four hours, so let’s just work on making you comfortable. You've got a nice quiet side ward here, all to yourself, and Mrs. Lewis can stay here with you as long she likes—"

"I'm not...”

                  “We're not..."

"We’re just friends," says Laura. "Good friends," she adds, taking his hand.

Herero sucks on her teeth and makes another note. "So, you live alone? There anyone home to look after you?”

"No," he says, “but—”

“You’ve had a heart attack and a nasty fall, Mr. Lewis. You can’t go home alone! I’ll see if we have a bed on male surgical…”

"He won’t be alone,” says Laura firmly. "We'll make... arrangements."

"You should probably stay with me, just for a day or two," she says. "Just until you can get around safely." She blinks. "I'll make up the spare bed."

"I'm sorry," says Robbie.

"Yes," she says. "So am I.”

And she is gone, promising to pass on his messages and return with a toothbrush, pyjamas, and any autopsy notes she can scrounge.

Robbie gingerly eases the sheet aside. The bruises on his chest seem to darken in real time, blossoming blue and black over his heart. He can almost see James’s fingerprints.

James himself does not appear, nor any other visitor, although cards and flowers seem to make it through Herero’s cordon at regular intervals, as does, finally, Siobhan Maitland.

“Only by flashing my warrant card,” she admits, offering an awkward bunch ofchrysanthemums. “Your guard dog is fierce. How you doing?"

"Been better,” Robbie says. “Oh, f’pete's sake, Siobhan - don't hover. Sit. Talk.” His voice is stronger now, but breaks and squeaks at inopportune moments, and his ribs ache with every breath.

“I’m supposed to be taking your statement.”

He waves that aside. “I need to know – what you found.”

“Not much yet. It looks like your friend Connor Patterson booby-trapped his own house, before moving onto the gothic pile. Fire brigade won’t let us loose on the scene yet.”

“Wife?”

"De Souza and Hathaway found her in the kitchen. They got her out, but - looks like Patterson strangled her. De Souza think she must have put up quite a fight, judging by what she saw. As for the rest, forensics are taking apart the mini-van. There is blood in the wheelchair lift. Give us a few days to match the evidence.

“So, you’re not looking…”

“…for anyone else for the Dunn killing. No.” She leans forward, hands clasped in her lap. “The guy next door. He wasn't even on my radar, Robbie. No priors, not even a speeding ticket. West Midlands are going through some files on an old traffic accident, but…"

"Patterson’s kid died in a car smash - twenty years back."

"Jesus.” She looks down. “I jumped the gun again, didn't I?"

"We both did, Siobhan. You got it wrong - but so did I, and I got two people killed."

"Almost three. You’d have joined them, but for Inspector Hathaway. He's an unusual man. Impressive. I understand why he raises hackles.”

"He also makes collars."

“You never doubted him, did you?"

"No, " he says.

"Not for a moment?"

"No. Because I know him."

"And I suppose you know your boy doesn’t have it in him."

"Don't be daft,” He says “ We're all killers. In the right circumstances. Anger, fear, stupidity… Push the right buttons - we kill. No, I mean, I know him. Know what makes him tick. The very first time he spoke to me - in that God-forsaken car park, I watched him. He was relieved it wasn't suicide. That's his button."

"This hasn't been the easiest way for him to move into command, has it?"

Robbie sighs. "No, it hasn’t.”

"Still, he’s right, a fresh start will help..."

"Fresh start?"

"Clean slate, somewhere high profile, where he can get back on the fast track. You said he was smart.””

“Hathaway said that?”

“He even convinced Innocent, once he pointed out that one more transfer out of her team would unlock funding for recruitment a year early. I’ll give him a good reference, too. It’s the least I can do, don’t you think?"

"Yeah."

“Maybe your protégé can shake off whatever has been holding back the past seven years. Oh, and that’s not the only good news. Debbie Dunn gave birth last night. Little girl. Her parents are with her, looking shell-shocked, to tell the truth."

“I know how they feel.”

It’s a relief to both of them when she is summoned by text back to Isis Crescent, and the smoking remains of the Patterson bungalow.

Laura turns up at seven, with an overnight bag, a pasta salad and a single Cadbury’s creme egg. - ‘"Seeing as you missed the Easter bunny."

They swap notes, hers on the mortal remains of Connor Patterson, his on the state of his heart, as relayed by a doctor younger than his Lyn who had looked as exhausted as he now felt.

“These are good, Robbie,” Laura looks up from her study. “Trust me. According to these, your heart shows no sign of serious damage.”

“Doesn’t feel like it,” he says, and he is not thinking only of the pain across his sternum.

“That’s just bruising. Nothing permanent.” She brushes the hair back from his forehead, with a tenderness that makes the ache just a little worse.

“What about you?”

“I’ll live,” she says. "And so, it seems, will you. You’ll be out of here in a day, two at the most. Not everyone gets a second chance, you know. Don’t throw it away.”

”Laura.” He takes her hand before she can withdraw it, warm soft and dry in his. He has no idea what apology he can make. “I– I’ve never lied to you, I promise.”

Her face crumples into something halfway between grief and laughter. “Oh, shssh. You idiot. I know that. You seem to be constitutionally incapable of lying to anyone, except possibly yourself. Now, I have a case review first thing tomorrow morning. Should be done before lunch. Date?”

“Date,” he agrees.

Herero’s replacement, Nurse Jinn, seems to accept that Robbie is not about to lapse into coma, removes the last of the wires and tubes tying him to the bed, and helps him make a slow progress to the bathroom. “Got to start moving, Mr. Lewis. One step at a time.”

The night is long and lonely as only night in a building crowded with 1000 restless sleepers and dreamers can be. Robbie lies awake, contemplating silence, and wonders where James lies, if he sleeps, and what dreams or nightmares pass through his head.

After seven years Robbie has learned that it is always James’s silence which speaks most clearly to him. And now he is running away again.

Soon all this will be just another anecdote in JamesHathaway’s unlikely biography, revealing nothing: I rowed a bit at college; I trained as a priest; I was approached by MI5, I played with the kids on the estate. All boxed up and locked up and left behind. Safe. I once kissed my boss.

Words spoken. Words unspoken. Sins of Omission. Whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.’

At some point in the night Robbie slips into sleep. If he dreams, he recalls nothing when he wakes at dawn, and makes two phone calls from the bedside payphone, lying through gritted teeth on both.

Chapter Text

Robbie Lewis clutches the back of the bench with one hand, overnight bag with the other, takes a deep breath, and eases himself onto the seat. It's colder out than he had anticipated, and Laura had not thought to pack a jacket with his shirt and jeans.

He fishes the watch from his pocket and squints through the cracked glass; 10:55. The walk here took longer than planned, by at least fifteen excruciating minutes. Nurse Herero must have noticed his absence by now. Give her another five minutes to establish that he isn’t on the loo, or in the corridor. How much longer does he have before he's spotted? He looks around and is reassured by how little he stands out. Just one old fart among many, palely loitering in the sunlight forecourt of a busy hospital.

But if the getaway car doesn’t show up soon, then all his planning and the long walk from his bed to the bench will have been for nothing. And Laura will still kill him when she learns of this bid for freedom.

That walk had almost done the job for her. The shower helped, at first, as he clung to the clutch bar under the steaming clean pressure of the Radcliffe's vast tanks and boilers. The heat eased out knots from shoulders and thighs, from the bruising left by the current which had gripped every muscle and thrown him back from the filthy water of the basement onto unforgiving concrete.

That had lent him just mobility enough to dress, slowly and badly, screened from casual observation from the main ward. But he had stiffened again as he waited for the optimum moment to slip past the nurses’ station and lose himself in the midmorning traffic of the hospitals corridors and lifts.

The last hundred yards had been the worst, in sight of the sliding glass doors, hugging the wall as long as he could, placing one foot in front of the other, one step at a time, and all the time expecting to be discovered and detained.

And all pointless if his message has not been put through, or misinterpreted.

He checks his watch again: 10.59. How long can he sit here, shivering, before he admits defeat, and has to face the humiliating shuffle back upstairs?

11.00.

11.10.

A familiar silver Astra, recognisably one of the unmarked Cowley station pool cars, pulls up only metres from the bench, and the driver sprints past Robbie towards the sliding door and reception desk beyond.

"Oi! Over here."

James Hathaway does a double take and finally sees Robbie, signalling and struggling to his feet.

"I'm sorry. I'm late - the message came through Relay."

 Of course it had, Robbie had been relying on just that, once he realised that James's number was ringing out, that the phone was, in all likelihood, still sitting in the evidence locker.

"Robbie - Why have they left you sitting out here? You look-"

“Terrible, I know.” Robbie brushes off James's helping hand, determined not to appear helpless. Not now. Not today.

"I was going to say, frozen. Here, give me the bag at least. I thought Laura had all this under control," James says, as he shadows Robbie's slow progress toward the car.

Robbie steps gingerly down from the curb. “She was called into a meeting.”

That at least was not a lie. Just one of those omissions again. He lets James open the passenger door and slides in. The backseat is already full. Rucksack. Guitar case. Everything James would need for a quick getaway.

"You going somewhere?" he asks, as casually as he can. He reaches for the seat belt and fails.

Now it's James's turn to shun eye contact, spending just longer than necessary stowing Robbie's bag beside his own.

"Hotel. For a day or two. SOCO trashed the flat."

I know, thinks Robbie, thinking back to the sooty smudges left on white walls and windows, doors and drawers. Skin crawling reminders of intrusion and scrutiny.

"So? Get professional cleaners in, man. Insurance'll cover it." Robbie winces again as his fingers again fail to grasp the belt.

"Bloody hope so, or I'll never see my deposit again." James's cheek colours suddenly, the complaint apparently revealing more than he had he intended. He hooks the belt and passes it to his passenger. Their fingers meet, briefly. Robbie is, for a few moments, aware of the heat of his skin, the smells of soap and wool and shaving foam and James.

"Comfortable?"

"I'll live," says Robbie. "Just get us away from this place and back to my place."

James pauses. "Not Laura's?" His eyes narrow.

"I told you, she's in a meeting. Change of plan," says Robbie. He may not have much experience as a liar, but he's had years of practise out-staring his sergeant. "I've had enough of doctors for today."

Robbie puffs out relief as they finally peel out of the Radcliffe, to join the sticky workday queue filtering onto the A40. He looks across at James, trying to imagine his reaction when he discovers that he's been used. The bruises Dunn inflicted have faded, even as Robbie's have darkened. There is a fine fresh scrape on his jaw, evidence of the haste with which he shaved this morning.

James senses the scrutiny. "What?"

"Your sweater." James is bundled into an unfamiliar oversized cable knit, and a pair of pale jeans, silk-soft over his thighs. "New?"

"Borrowed. Everything else is at Khan's. Although I'm not sure even he will get Hooper's DNA out of my Hugo Boss." The car swings out into the dual carriageway.

"Ah, well, head wounds do bleed a lot. Send the bill to Innocent."

"Oh, Innocent is already making amends. This," James tugs at the thick cream wool at his shoulder, "This is Mr. Innocent's."

"Seriously? You met Mr. Innocent?"

"No. I woke up in his pyjamas in the spare room, with no memory of putting them on. At least - I hope I put them on. Apparently Mr. Innocent is still 'chillaxing' somewhere on the Cornish coast. Jean gave me carte blanche to raid his wardrobe.”

“And?”

“And what.”

“You’re supposed to be a detective, man!”

“Well, you know how there are some things you never want to learn about your parents?”

“Ah.”

“Let’s just say the surfboard, the acid jazz and the strong suggestion of patchouli lingering in the bedroom only scratch the surface of the Innocents’ domestic depravity.”

Robbie almost laughs, despite the warning creak of his ribs. This feels good, safe, familiar. Beyond the bubble of glass, Oxford unspools past them: domes, towers, workshops, spires, brick stone, homes, blossom, people, lives, unrolling, unfolding, unknowable.

For one mad, wonderful moment he considers the possibility that they could stay like this forever, just driving, side by side, to nowhere in particular.

Except. Except, the road they have turned onto is in unfamiliar territory. Robbie has no map to navigate by. And James isn't driving - he's running.

"DCI Maitland said you'd put in for transfer," he says.

James considers a moment too long. His tongue touches his lower lip as if tasting the version of the truth to offer up. “She's putting together a task force to go into Rotherham, suggested I could be a fit."

"Rotherham! I mean, yes - but - Rotherham?"

"They need good people."

"Too bloody right they do; the South Yorkshire Force's a bloody cesspit! Always has been." And just for a moment, Robbie glimpses Meredith Waite, on a spring day in Sheffield, kneeling beside the dead and dying strewn over a football pitch, as the policemen and women sworn to protect them stood aside.

He wonders again at the impulse that drove James Hathaway to leave Waite and choose a uniform, at the impulse that drives him now.

"Rotherham's just one possibility."

"But is that what you want?" Robbie asks.

"It’s probably for the best, in the circumstances." That flick of the tongue again. Not lies. Probably, possibly. Weasel words. Evasions. Omissions.

"Ah, for-! Pull over, man.”

“What?”

“Now. Pull over. Stop the bloody car.”

"I can't, not here…”

"You're a policeman. Throw your weight around for once."

"Robbie, are you ok? Do you need to go back?"

"No. I mean yes. I'm fine."

James was right, this is a lousy place to stop, on the hard shoulder, the car rocking as the big rigs pass. But it's still, and James now has no reason to avoid eye contact.

"Thank you," Robbie says.

"For what?"

Everything. “I'll never understand why this sort of thing is so hard to say."

James's fingers tap the steering wheel. "Lack of beer?" he offers.

"Yeah, maybe." Robbie turns the suggestion over a couple of times. The next turning would take towards the Red Lion at Marston, they could settle at the corner table for a while. All futures look just a little more golden through the lens of a full pint glass. Beer gives a conversation shape, pauses, limits, it makes silence between two men seem comfortable. Rational. Reasonable. "You saved my life."

"I just got there first. Everyone else there could have done as much."

"They didn't. You did. I owe you one." Beer again. Except, of course, that one of them is driving and one is already dosed to the eyeballs with codeine, which means the only sensible option is orange juice, which means they have to do this sober. "I owe you... Look, can't you just tell me what you really want? Not what you think you need to say, or I want to hear? Even - even it means you want to leave?"

"Robbie, it's not - it's nothing to do with you."

Not about me, or not my business? Or both? Could I have misunderstood? "Look at me, and say that."

James doesn't look. James only stares ahead, at his hands, still at ten-to-two on the wheel, at the road ahead, in a silence broken only by the tick, tick, tick of the hazard lights.

"So, why can we never talk about it?" he says.

“Because when we do, it usually ends with one of us angry and the other enjoying a brush with certain death. Sometimes both." James reaches for the key. "Can we get you home now?”

"No." Robbie reaches across and snatches the key from the ignition. This he immediately regrets, as a sudden shaft of pain leaves him doubled and panting. He sees the pain on his own face mirrored in the concern on James’s.

“Robbie - are you okay…?”

“I'm fine!” He grits his teeth, and folds his hand around the key, stranding them both here.

“See - you’re already angry,” James looks almost relieved, “I should drive us straight back to the hospital now, cut out the middleman.”

“I’m not angry – but I am bloody frustrated. Tell me, you're leaving now because...?"

"It's best. Safest."

"Safest for who?"

"Whom."

"Bloody hell. Safest for whom?"

"Robbie - you of all people should understand. When was wanting or asking or praying ever safe? We shouldn't say those things aloud, because either there is no one, no thing, out there in the whole godless universe to care, or worse, there is, and He is a sadistic Arsehole who can just choose to rip away what you already have..."

"You're right -"

"What?"

"You're right. Time was I sat alone every night, pleading, bargaining to get back what I'd lost. And everyone morning I was still on my own, and the wanting,” Robbie taps his chest, just below his heart, where so recently James's hands had pummelled him painfully back into life, "here, was so much worse."

"Well then," James says.

"James, admitting what you need isn't a crime – or, or a sin. Or it shouldn't be. Taking, stealing, extorting - yes. But you aren’t a thief or blackmailer or a rapist. Sometimes - sometimes you have to just ask, even if the answer is No. Even if might be Yes. Sometimes you need faith.”

That almost makes James laugh – but his hands are shaking, and his words sound close to tears. “That’s easy enough to say.”

"But harder to do. I know. I'm talking to myself."

"Robbie, no-"

"No, you great gowk - I'm talking to me, not you. This what I have to do. Right now." Robbie has the horrifying thought that he has the power to bring James to tears, right here, on the hard shoulder, which is and would be unbearable. "I'll try to say what it is I most want. Need. Right at this moment. All you have to do is listen. And then give me any answer you can. Yes, no, maybe, next week, never - whatever it is, it won't matter. I'll live. We'll both live."

Robbie takes as deep a breath as he can. This may be his last chance to put the right words in something like the right order and make sense of his journey here, to the hard shoulder of the A40.

"Right now, what I need is to get home…” His heart pounds, his palms sweat, his thoughts dry in his mouth and stick there. Let them go, and what little content he still has could be lost forever. One step at a time. He squeezes both eyes shut and gathers all his courage in both hands and in all his words. “…and then I want to kiss you,” he says. “Very hard and for quite a long time. And not necessarily on the lips."

"Jesus."

Robbie can’t tell if this is a curse or prayer or the only answer he will ever hear. He has made the words and said them, and it suddenly it doesn’t matter what happens next.

He opens his eyes and watches with calm curiosity the tide of colour rise from James's throat, his ludicrously, beautifully long throat, and stain his cheek.

A peace settles in him, and the words slip out more easily now. “I don’t care if you're gay, straight, or bloody Mother Teresa, if you sleep on the left or the right, or, or... I want you, dammit..."

James’s larynx dips and bobs as he swallows. He is staring, unmoving, as the traffic of Oxford flows on past this fragile knot of silence, oblivious.

"Oh God," James says.

He turns. Finally. His eyes are dark, blow-torch black, holes into which the city disappears, into which light and the world disappear.

All Robbie’s brittle composure evaporates, like dew. This is not safe after all. I could be consumed by this, to ash. He opens his mouth, but if he still had any words to say, he has lost power to share them.

"Oh. God," says James again, and, "Yes."

 

And then
this one, who never shall be parted from me,
kissed my mouth,
all a-tremble.

 Questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,
La bocca mi baciò
tutto tremante

 

 

Inferno: Canto V 134-6